Sheri Booker describes the death business in ‘Nine Years Under’

Nine Years Under: Coming of Age in an Inner City Funeral Home. Sheri Booker. Gotham. 268 pages. $26.
Nine Years Under: Coming of Age in an Inner City Funeral Home. Sheri Booker. Gotham. 268 pages. $26.

Sheri Booker was 15 when she got a summer job at a West Baltimore funeral home. In the beginning, she answered phones and babysat bodies, showing guests into the funeral home’s viewing room. But over the next nine years she was given almost every task, from writing obituaries and driving a hearse to lifting bodies and painting women’s fingernails.

In Nine Years Under, Booker describes her life in the death business. The result is alternately creepy and captivating, drawing readers in with the same you-can’t-not-look quality of a highway crash.

Booker’s story revolves around the Albert P. Wylie Funeral Home, a family operation that serves a mostly black clientele. The owner, Al Wylie, is an acquaintance from church and had just buried Booker’s Aunt Mary when he offered her a job.

Saying “yes” puts her at the center of the seemingly never-dull world of the funeral home. On one occasion, Booker listens as two men vow to avenge the murder of their brother while standing over his corpse at a viewing. On another, she finds guests have left a bottle of cognac and a bag of marijuana in a casket. Then there are the friends of a teenage transvestite who died of AIDS who ask that her bra be stuffed because “she had breasts before she got sick” and a daughter who asks that her father look more dead.

Beyond people, Booker also introduces readers to the quirks of the funeral business. She says that in Maryland, writing on a death certificate in blue ink invalidates it, that insurance companies contest policies less than two years old, and that when a man is dressed in a suit for his funeral, his jacket is often slit up the back to make it easier to get on, the shorn ends then tucked under the deceased’s back.

Booker doesn’t hide anything from readers. She acknowledges that for her first six months she couldn’t enter the funeral home’s viewing room without crying. She admits a longstanding crush on the funeral home owner’s son. And she confesses she once dented the funeral home’s van while going through a McDonald’s drive-thru with a body in the back.

There will be some stiffs who just can’t get past Booker’s subject. Readers who do will find that her story is only partly about dead people. But the living make the book.

Jessica Gresko reviewed this book for the Associated Press.

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