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Nine Years Under: Coming of age in an urban funeral home

EDDIE BERNICE JOHNSON | , QIANA JONES | 10/7/2013, 9:02 a.m.
Sheri Booker, who has worn several hats at the Wylie Funeral Home, steps out of a company hurse in front of the home’s cemetery. Booker is the author of Nine Years Under, a memoir of her career at the funeral home – from 15 to 24 years old. Booker's website

The Dallas Examiner

There are many tales and whispers about what happens to the human body after death. What processes are really involved as a mortician prepares a body for viewing and ultimately, burial? Sheri Booker, author of Nine Years Under gives direct access to areas of the funeral home that most people have never seen, nor heard of.

Nine Years Under is the coming-of-age memoir of Booker, a then 15-year-old girl who finds life in the most unlikely of places … among the dead. After the death of her great-aunt Mary, she playfully accepts a summer job offered by one of the deacons of her church, who is also the director and owner of a well-known funeral parlor in the inner-city of West Baltimore named Wylie Funeral Home. While she had no real intentions of following through, Booker ended up spending the next nine years as the protégé of Al Wylie. She learns every facet of the mortuary business and by the age of 24, she’s practically running the business independently. She becomes a prized and well-regarded employee with one client referring to her as an “angel.”

The author takes her audience on a lively tour of the life of an undertaker and leaves nothing uncovered or left to the imagination. She offers a fully detailed and engrossing account of the varying experiences and delicate circumstances that families face when grieving the death of a loved one. From the financial strains to the emotional devastations, Booker shares the intricacies of life after death and uses the literary tools of humor, candor and compassion in her storytelling.

Wearing many hats as referee, negotiator, financial planner, attorney, therapist, minister and friend, she witnessed the fights between family members over money and the knockout fiascos between widows and mistresses. In one chapter, Booker describes a disheveled and putrid smelling woman who threatens to commit suicide right there in the mortuary where her father and friend had been eulogized. Booker handles the woman with great empathy and care while summoning the assistance of Wylie, former street hustler, who comes into the room and addresses the bizarre situation in a way that is absolutely unbelievable to her.

Because the funeral home was situated within the rough neighborhoods of the city, she observed the funerals of AIDS patients and murdered gang members – sometimes with bullets spraying the service. She describes extremely difficult moments where the funeral home was filled with the chilling and tearful screams of mothers who had to bury their own children. Once, she dressed an infant that she referred to as the size of a Cabbage Patch doll in a diaper and onesie in preparation for viewing. In another chapter, she depicts the preparation of a teen suicide victim who actually leaves instructions for the mortician tattooed onto his arm.

The novel is a remarkable gift that furnishes a peek inside the buried details of the funeral home industry with its casket lifts, embalming fluid, urns, hidden doors and underground passageways that lead to the secluded areas where the living … prepares the dead.