Baltimore Post-Examiner is proud to present an excerpt from Nine Years Under: The Coming of Age in an Inner City Funeral Home, a book available at Amazon by Sheri Booker. It’s Six Feet Under meets The Wire in a dazzling and darkly comic memoir about coming-of-age in a black funeral home in Baltimore
Sheri Booker was only fifteen years old when she started working at Wylie Funeral Home in West Baltimore. She had no idea that her summer job would become nine years of immersion in a hidden world. Reeling from the death of her beloved great aunt, she found comfort in the funeral home, and soon has the run of the place, from its sacred chapels to the terrifying embalming room.
With AIDS and gang violence threatening to wipe out a generation of black men, Wylie was never short on business. As families came together to bury one of their own, Booker was privy to their most intimate moments of grief and despair. But along with the sadness, Booker encountered moments of dark humor: brawls between mistresses and widows, and car crashes at McDonald’s with dead bodies in tow. While she never got over her terror of the embalming room, Booker learned to expect the unexpected and to never, ever cry.
This vibrant tour of a macabre world reveals an urban funeral culture where photo-screened memorial T-shirts often replace suits and ties and the dead are sent off with a joint or a fifth of cognac. Nine Years Under offers readers an unbelievable glimpse into an industry in the backdrop of all our lives.
The custodian who controlled the thermostat for Baltimore’s summer heat was a smug son of a bitch—relentlessly unleashing lethal doses of sweltering humidity and dampness into the inner-city air. There was no way to dilute the blazing mixture.
Fired up like an open rotisserie, it roasted the skins of innocent bystanders—gravediggers, policemen, and outdoor merchants—until they were a golden-brown delight. Those who could tolerate the unbearable heat were desperate for any sort of hydration—a fire hydrant, a frosted bottle of water from a street vendor—or for God to at least have enough mercy on the city to let it rain.
I had stopped petitioning the heavens for miracles four days before, when my aunt Mary’s light went dark. My mother discovered her slumped figure just in time to see it gasping for its last taste of oxygen. We were now en route to see her remains for the first time since she was taken from me, and in just a few moments, I would be standing inside a building designed to transition corpses from lifeless organisms into living memories.
None of us should have been surprised, but eight wide eyes stared at Great-Great-Aunt Mary’s unresponsive body that horrible night. My parents, my sister, and I hovered around the bed where she lay slouched in an eternal slumber, her eyes shut tight and her body completely still. My father knew CPR; he was a policeman. And my sister had been certified in CPR for the camp where she worked that summer. But no one moved. As I stood there, the plush carpet shifted like sand beneath my bare toes and the walls of the room felt like they were closing in on me.
My home had felt foreign for weeks. The hospice nurse stacked the shelves with medical equipment, a few weeks’ supply of Depend adult diapers, morphine patches, bandages, and gauze. People were in and out all the time: nurses, visitors, and ministers back-to-back. If Aunt Mary had been in her right mind, she would have called it “signifying or meddling in her business,” but she hadn’t been coherent for a while.
We watched her shrivel and shrink as the cancer consumed most of her body. The hospice nurse warned me to savor every moment because time was running out. She gave me a purple double-pocketed folder with booklets about preparing for death and what to do when your loved one has a terminal illness, but I shoved it into a drawer after her shift was over and didn’t look at it until weeks after the funeral when we were cleaning out Aunt Mary’s room. Neither flowery folders with colorful brochures nor compassionate nurses can prepare you for the inevitable.
After weeks of hospice care and enough meds to tranquilize an army, Aunt Mary slipped through our fingers like twenty thousand dollars on a gambler’s bad day. No little girl wants to stand by and witness her hero surrender. I wish someone had told me back then that hospice care was the beginning of the end. Then I wouldn’t have blamed myself for not doing enough. I wouldn’t have felt ignored by God.
Reprinted by arrangement with GOTHAM BOOKS, a member of Penguin Group (USA) LLC, A Penguin Random House Company. Copyright © SHERI BOOKER, 2013.
Sheri Booker is a writer, poet, spoken word artist, and teacher. She is the author of the poetry book, One Woman, One Hustle (Book Her, 2003) and she has traveled the U.S. reciting and performing her poetry. In 2007, she lived in rural South Africa where she taught journalism skills to African women and worked as an editorial assistant for an international literary magazine. Sheri has written for Urbanite, Channel, The Amazwi Villager and a. magazine and the East County Times. Sheri has an M.F.A. in creative nonfiction from Goucher College. She received her B.A. in political science from the College of Notre Dame of Maryland in Baltimore where she currently lives.