Journalist and author Sarah Wildman searches archives, history books and European capitals for her grandfather's "true love" -- a young doctor he left behind when he fled Nazi-occupied Vienna in 1938.
Guest Host: Marc Fisher
When Sheri Booker’s aunt died, the Baltimore native dealt with her grief in an unusual way: she got a summer job at a funeral home. Beginning at age 15, Booker spent nine years in the funeral industry, at a time when inner-city violence brought people of all ages through the funeral home’s doors. She discusses an industry defined by loss and explores how funeral homes fit into the fabric of urban communities.
- Sheri Booker author, "Nine Years Under: Coming Of Age In An Inner-City Funeral Home."
Read An Excerpt
Excerpted from NINE YEARS UNDER by Sheri Booker. Copyright (c) 2013 by Sheri Booker. Reprinted by arrangement with Gotham Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA), Inc.
MR. MARC FISHERWelcome back. I'm Marc Fisher of the Washington Post sitting in on "The Kojo Nnamdi Show." When Sheri Booker first showed up for her shift at the funeral home in West Baltimore where she worked, the city's homicide rate was among the nation's highest. Drugs and violence brought bodies of the young and old to funeral home doers and Booker was just a teenager in high school. What started that day as a summer job would become a nine-year stint as a funeral director's assistant.
MR. MARC FISHERIn that time she would deal with corpse mix-ups, retrieve the body of a 600-pound man from his house and take on the heart-wrenching task of dressing a deceased six-month-old boy before his funeral. Her nine years in a funeral home transformed her thoughts on death and on life. And she joins me now to discuss her book "Nine Years Under: Coming of Age in an Inner-City Funeral Home." And Sheri Booker, you are still a very young woman. You'd left that business just six or seven years ago. Has it changed the way you look at people?
MS. SHERI BOOKERAbsolutely.
BOOKERYou know, when you work in the funeral business you give life a different value. Life means so much more to you. And so, you know, you think differently. You think more about what you eat. You think more about your relationships with people. You know, I tell people exactly how I feel about them. I don't really want to have many regrets if I can help it. And so I just look at life so much differently. So much richer. So many more things that I want to do and try to do.
FISHERIf you'd like to join our conversation you can give us a call at 1-800-433-8850 or email us at email@example.com. Let us know about how the experience of death and loss has affected your life and how you came to terms with that experience. What rights and rituals helped you along that passage? And Sheri Booker, as you worked in the funeral industry for nine years without ever studying mortuary science, you nonetheless picked up on all of the tricks of the trade. Ultimately what were your day-to-day tasks at Wiley's Funeral Home?
BOOKERI did a little bit of everything. We were a small business, a family-owned business -- father and son business. And so I did everything from the office work of arranging funerals, insurance policies, to actually driving on services, driving the hearse or the removal fan. I also helped to dress bodies and I did some hair, makeup, those type of things. I did everything except embalm.
FISHERAnd this was a family-owned operation, right?
BOOKERA close family friend of mine, but it was a family-owned business, yes.
FISHERWhich these days in the funeral industry is rather unusual. At least in many parts of the country a very small handful of very large companies have basically taken over the funeral industry. And yet in the African American areas of inner-cities there remains this tradition of family-owned funeral homes. Why do you think that is?
BOOKERI think that in the African American community, these funeral directors have worked so hard to build their businesses that it's just difficult for them to fathom turning their businesses over. I know several funeral directors who spoke with and talked to some of these big corporations about buying their funeral homes. But I think they look at it, they think about their children, they think about their grandchildren, and just kind of keeping this business that they had to work so hard for year and year and year. They just don't want to do it.
FISHERAnd the funeral home you were working at in inner-city Baltimore, obviously there's an interrelationship between the work done at that funeral home and what was happening on the streets of Baltimore, the violence that was occurring while you were working there and to this day. Did your work at the funeral home get caught up in that violence?
BOOKERIt did. We actually had a shootout at one of our viewings one evening while I was working.
FISHEROh, my goodness.
BOOKERSo imagine going to work and you're there. All of a sudden we hear just all this running, people trying to get through the doors screaming. And they were just like, they're shooting outside, they're shooting. And so we had a young black African American male on view and someone came through the neighborhood and did a drive-by, shot out one of the windows in the funeral home. Luckily no one was hurt in that altercation but, yeah, it became very real for us. And sometimes our work could be dangerous.
FISHERYou know, like church and radio, funeral homes remain one of the more segregated industries in America. Why do you think that is?
BOOKERWell, traditionally, you know, an African American community during segregation and those times, white funeral homes did not treat bodies the same. So, you know, sometimes you would have to go to the backdoor or drop your loved one off at the backdoor. Or just the way they treated bodies during those times. And I think that's one of the reasons why the business has just stayed segregated. And again, it's just like churches.
BOOKERIt seems that way that I think families believe that someone that looks like me can take care of my loved one better. They know what to do with the hair. They know what to do with the makeup or how to dress them. So I think it's a cultural thing where depending where you live, especially in urban cities, you'll see that, the more segregated funeral homes.
FISHERNow you were just 15 when you started work at the funeral home. Well, how did that come to pass?
BOOKERI had just had a loss of my own. My great aunt had passed away and Mr. Wiley actually buried her. He was a family friend and he also was a deacon at my church. And so we kind of talked after the funeral and he kind of offered me this job. And I just wanted to know what happened to Aunt Mary. I was very, very curious of what went on behind the scenes. So I'm like, okay I'm going to go in here for a couple of weeks, maybe the rest of the summer and see what happens. And I ended up staying there for nine years.
FISHERI'd like to ask you to read a little bit from the book.
FISHERThere's a passage on page 44 where when you were -- one of your first days at the funeral home and it's the first time that you're asked to touch the body of a deceased person and what happened there.
BOOKERI looked up at Marlow's stern face and then turned to the woman in the casket. I wanted to whisper an apology in her ear, but instead I extended my hand toward her. I hesitated at first. Go on, feel her face, Marlow urged me to get it over with. I gently stroked her cool cheek and the dead woman's pear-shaped face smiled blankly back at me. I would later learn that death smiles are manmade. A minor technique of skin adjustment.
BOOKERI expected to feel tightening in the pit of my belly like when I touched Aunt Mary for the first time. But instead an inexplicable feeling of peace washed over me. I didn't feel connected to this woman because I didn't know her story.
FISHERAnd tell me more about that feeling of peace. Was there something icky at first? I mean, did -- something that -- some hurdle that you had to get over?
BOOKERWell, this is my first time so my boss left me alone in the funeral home by myself. I go in the chapel to play the organ and I turn around and there's a body there. I am horrified. And so I was really scared. That wasn't in my job description. I didn't know that a body was going to be right there. And so that was my first time really confronting the death of a stranger. And so I didn't know how to feel or what I would feel. And so I was surprised when I touched her that nothing happened.
BOOKERYou know, we hear all of these myths about what happens to bodies. Do they sit up? Do they jump up? Do they touch you? Do they take a last breath? And so I did not know what to expect in that moment. So I did feel a calming of peace and I was able to do that for many more years.
FISHERYou know, doctors often talk about how there's a different face that they have to put on for the public for their patients and their families as opposed to when they're behind the curtain with each other. And it's much more of a sort of gallows humor kind of thing where -- And is the same thing true in funeral parlors?
BOOKERAbsolutely. Behind the scenes, they were the best times of my life. I worked with some of the funniest people, some of the most amazing people. And so, you know, when you say I had to laugh to keep from crying, sometimes we really laughed to keep from crying because we saw some things that were totally horrific. And so we would have to make fun of each other or have little inside jokes to kind of keep us going and upbeat during that time.
FISHERAnd in an inner-city community where there's not a lot of disposable income -- funerals, as we know, can be very expensive -- how does a funeral home sort of walk the line between needing to make a profit and needing to serve the community?
BOOKERYou know, there is a very, very thin line because you get cases where people are totally unprepared for death. And so they do not have money. And so because we are -- we were very active in the community, because, you know, my boss was a deacon and, you know, we were Christians, we did feel like we did have to give back to the community. So we were able to help people sometimes. Depending on the situation, what it was, we were able to give back and help and support. And there are other organizations in the community, churches in the community, that were able to help the families that we buried.
BOOKERAnd so some people would find out -- they would have an insurance policy, but then they wouldn't have it for two years and that contestable clause would go into effect. So we may have someone who comes in and they have an insurance policy for 100, $250,000 and can't use it because they haven't had it for long enough. So you would see situations like that where now they're back down to zero. So what do I do? How do I bury my loved one and I don't have any money?
BOOKERAnd so one of the things I talk about is how cremation, you know, in our community was a very taboo thing. People would assume if you're cremated that you just didn't have money for a service. Because it's really ultimately the cheapest, you know, service that you can get. It's about $2,000 -- 1500 to $2,000 for a cremation. But now I see it's more popular. It's more of a preference now than it is about finances in a community. More people just want to be cremated.
FISHERAnd is that -- that seems to be a generational preference in young people.
BOOKERYeah, I think so. I think so.
FISHERDoes that cut deeply into the profitability of a funeral?
BOOKERNo, because you know what people are doing? They're making it their final disposition. So they're still going through with the whole embalming process. They're having a service, they're buying a casket but they don't want to be buried in cemeteries anymore. So they're just choosing that as their final disposition.
FISHERInteresting. Well, you can join our conversation by calling 1-800-433-8850 or email at firstname.lastname@example.org. You know, in the 1960s the journalist Jessica Mitford wrote a very famous book called "The American Way of Death." And there were so many taboos around death and funerals that she wrote about.
FISHERShe wrote that many American funeral homes took advantage of those taboos and of a family's grief to get them to pay more. Of course your boss, the funeral director, was running a business. But the way you describe it, he took great care to provide families with a proper funeral. So, you know, is this still a business where there is a temptation to take advantage of people's grief?
BOOKERI think that the funeral business is expensive. I think that, you know, you outsource a lot of things. So you have to get these caskets. I think it's so interesting now that Wal-Mart actually sells caskets. So you can go online and order your casket for a much cheaper price. But, you know, everything...
FISHERAnd your funeral home has to accept that casket or do they insist on selling their own?
BOOKERIt depends on the funeral home. You know, we serve families so if that's your choice and that's really where you are then, fine then, you know. Another funeral director may say, okay you order your own casket but we're going to make up for it somewhere else, right. And so you see that, okay they bought their own casket so I'm going to charge extra for the embalming. And you see people do that.
BOOKERThe business where I worked they really weren't into that. They were really, you know, into serving families and treating them like they were your own loved one. And we buried about 300, 350 bodies a year, which is a decent number. So, you know...
FISHEROkay. When we come back after a short break, we'll take more of your calls and talk more about "Nine Years Under," the new book by Sheri Booker. I'm Marc Fisher sitting in for Kojo Nnamdi.
FISHERWelcome back. I'm Marc Fisher sitting in for Kojo Nnamdi. And we are talking with Sheri Booker about her new book "Nine Years Under: Coming of Age in an Inner-City Funeral Home." And you can join our conversation about funerals and the funeral business at 1-800-433-8850. And you were often responsible for preparing the appearance of a body before a first viewing, which might be the first time a family sees their loved one since he or she died. Tell us -- walk us through that process and what goes through your mind as you're preparing the body.
BOOKERWell, one of the things you want to do is you want to make sure that a person's loved one looks as familiar to them as, you know, they remember. So one of the things that my boss always asked for is a photo of your loved one. And we ask for a more recent photo so that you can make that person look as close to you. And then he basically was responsible for, you know, preparing that body. So he did the makeup. And when I'm saying makeup, I mean mortuary makeup. He was responsible for making that person look like your loved one.
BOOKERAnd so they use a lot of mortuary makeup. They have to dress you. One of the things, I would give families a list of what they need to bring in. So if it's a woman she needs panties, she needs a bra, she needs a slip, she needs stockings. And then she needs a long-sleeved dress or shirt or blouse to wear. And one of the reasons we ask for a long-sleeved blouse is because sometimes if someone was in the hospital, if they had an IV, they may have different bruises. They may have different marks on them.
BOOKERAnd they may have actually, you know, like a hole in their body that may leak. So sometimes you kind of have to wrap them or to make sure that, you know, there's no problem with them and they're not leaking through their clothing. And so, you know, we ask these families to bring in these pieces. For a man it's the same thing, boxers, undershirt, socks, you know, tie, shirt and a suit.
BOOKERAnd so one of the tricks of the trade that I share in the book is that sometimes when dressing you may have to cut up the back of the suit jacket to kind of help dress that man. You know, so there are little tricks of the trade that they use.
FISHERThere's a little showbiz involved in a sense.
BOOKERYeah, there is. Yep, you have to do magic.
FISHERAnd so -- and yet even though there is that sort of showmanship or performance to the craft, there's also the sense of -- there's sort of a heavy sense that must weigh on people who work in the business of what you're actually dealing with, which is people who have died. And the funeral director you worked with, Mr. Wiley, didn't drink but he did smoke heavily. You say that most morticians have some sort of substance abuse problem. Is that just because of the extended weight of dealing with the burdens that they do?
BOOKERI think so. I think you take a lot home with you. You see a lot. And sometimes -- you know, I was in the basement sometimes when -- definitely not as much as Mr. Wiley. So, you know, he sees what happens to those bodies. He sees how badly beaten a woman was or, you know, he know where all the gunshot wounds are. And so, yes, it gets heavy. It's a heavy weight that you carry with you. Even though sometimes you get a little numb to it, we are human. So sometimes you get very overwhelmed with what you actually see in the business.
BOOKERAnd so I think that funeral directors, some of them -- a lot of them it's smoking. Some of them it maybe drinking. You know, they have to do something.
FISHERHere's a call from Rafael in Reston. Rafael, you're on the air.
RAFAELOh, hello. Thank you for taking my call. I have two question actually. I head a while back about people opting for being buried what they call, I believe, is environmentally friendly way for -- doesn't have to use any of those chemicals. They were just put in the ground. And I wanted to know if your guest has heard any of this? And also, oh, I just went blank. Sorry.
FISHERWell, let's let her answer the question. So it's essentially about embalming and whether embalming is bad for the environment.
BOOKEREmbalming bad for the environment? I have not heard that. I do know that people of the Muslim faith, they do not get embalmed. And so they have a different ceremony that comes in. And they'll actually -- the imam will come in and, you know, they'll do the different ceremony and they'll bury them back in the ground. They'll wrap the body. There's no casket involved, no embalming involved. They're just put back into the dirt.
BOOKERMost people when they get the embalming, it's just for the preservation of the body. So you get embalmed if you're going to have a viewing. If you're not going to have a viewing and it's going to be a closed casket, then you don't really need to be embalmed. Especially if your service is taking place in the next few days, there's really no need for that. So really we only embalm if the body's going to go on view.
FISHERWe have an email from Andrew in Atlantic, Ga. wondering what you could say about the controversy surrounding the burial of the alleged Boston Marathon bomber, Tamerlan Tsarnaev. There was a whole controversy about whether he should even be given a proper burial. I mean, is there -- what's your view on that? Does everyone deserve a burial no matter how heinous their crime?
BOOKERYeah, I think everyone deserves a decent burial, Regardless of their crime. And especially in the case of that where, you know, his court hasn't gone -- his trial never went to court or anything. And we really don't know the details behind it. So I think that everyone deserved a decent burial, yes.
FISHERAnd here's Tom in Washington, D.C. Tom, you're on the air.
TOMI agree. Everybody needs a decent burial. We are not the judges.
TOMWe only -- we're the messengers, we're not...
TOMI've been a funeral director for 23 years, and here in Washington for 13.
TOMAnd I want to get your book and read it. And, you know, somehow we manage to bring up Jessica Mitford -- or reporters do now any time the topic of funerals, cemetery is in the news. And I don't know why we keep going back to her, but my experience has been -- what I'm hearing from you, ma'am, is that the funeral directors that I've worked with are doing this for the right reasons. Their heart is in it.
TOMI have only been around one funeral director that I think used some questionable tactics with the family. But that's only one out of eight firms I've represented in my career. That just is not the case. Jessica Mitford, in fact, buried every single one of her children. They all died. and so she had a bit of a -- let's say a lot of unresolved grief...
TOM...to vent on our profession. And she did so in a book. A lot of people don't know that about her and so she buried every one of her children, had a lot of unresolved grief issues. And when she died her funeral cost over $68,000.
TOMAll right. Thank you.
FISHERThank you. Thanks for the call.
BOOKERI think he makes, you know, a very good point. And especially the funeral directors that I know personally, I don't see anyone out here trying to overcharge people. But that's not to say, if you see a family that comes in and you know that they have $100,000 policy, then you may offer them, you know, different services. They may want a more expensive casket. They may want to spend that $25,000 on that, you know, gold casket that's out there, because there are caskets that cost that much money, right.
BOOKERSo they may want to spend that. And so it depends on what you want to -- you know, what the family wants. So no one's pressuring them. Because I've seen cremations sold for 10,000, $15,000 at the end of the day.
BOOKERYou know, they have expensive urns. They have these little cremation jewelry now where you can put the ashes inside of a necklace and where it, right. So you're wearing your mom's ashes around your neck in a little heart, right.
FISHERIt takes all kinds. Yeah.
BOOKERSo, you know, it depends on the situation.
FISHERNow, one of the big changes that happened obviously in the society is social media. And today someone may first hear of a family member's death by Facebook or Twitter. Considering your experience with families dealing with shock and grief from losing someone, how do you think social media has changed the way we mourn the dead and the way we process the...
BOOKERYeah, that is one of my pet peeves. I hate that. You know, there used to be a level of decency. You don't tell someone someone died over the phone. You know, you don't email it, you don't text it to them. You know, you kind of wait until that moment so you can share that. And now, you know, I've known people who have found out about the death of their friend or their loved one on Facebook. So imagine, you know, you're just scrolling through your timeline and all you see is rest in peace, you know, John. And you're like, what? I just talked to him ten minutes ago.
BOOKERAnd so I think that there's a level of decency, although we're in mourning and we're friends, that we have to wait until the family announces that before we can share that. And I understand that we want to memorialize our friend and that person in our life but we also have to respect the family. We can't just start posting pictures and not worry about their emotional wellbeing too. Because imagine someone who's overseas, you know, they're in the armed forces or something and they have to find out about the death of their loved one online or something like that.
BOOKERI just think that we have to be careful with that. And then on Twitter, you know, they kill so many people who really are not dead.
BOOKERAnd so that's so mean, guys. Let's just stop.
FISHERAnd yet both of those phenomena that you describe are now so widespread that it's hard to imagine them going away.
BOOKERThey are. They are. And I don't think there is a way to kind of filter it now. It's just what it is.
FISHERAnother change that's occurred, obviously the role of religion in funerals and in death has diminished somewhat as Americans tend to grow more secular in some ways. But as they do become more secular are they clinging to those religious rituals of the past or do you see that shifting as well?
BOOKERDo you know what's so interesting? I would see families who just were not members of a church. So they didn't go to, you know, a church or something like that. And so in a situation like that, they are kind of removed from the religious tradition. So they'll probably have the funeral at the funeral home. And it does not have to be as religious. They'll have a minister come in and do their part but they have the freedom to kind of design the program in the way they want it to be. They can play a more secular song.
BOOKERNow you see the slideshows at the services, you see these extra things that come along with the services that they can do, which they may not have felt comfortable doing in a church setting.
FISHERAnd in Baltimore, which in your book "Nine Year Under" you call a metropolis of death. Homicides have been responsible for the deaths of 250 to 300 people each year. Given that and the role that your funeral home played in the inner-city, did you see a difference in the way people behaved in the funeral home as opposed to out on the street? Is there still a sort of cultural shift that goes on in the setting of a funeral?
BOOKERI think that people still have a certain level of reverence when they come in the funeral home. For the most part people are very respectful when they're paying respects to their loved one. I have seen some things that are, you know, a little out there. So for example, I've seen people come in -- and let's just say we have a young man on view -- I've seen people put marijuana in their casket. I've seen people put Cognac-Henessy in a casket. I've seen gang members come and tie a bandana around their wrists or try to put it on their head. So there are times when people, I think, kind of overstep their boundaries because you can't do that if that's someone's loved one in their family.
BOOKERBut for the most part I would say 90 percent of the people that came in there, you know, they were very respectful in that particular setting. Now when they got outside they may have been something else. We've seen some people get heated. And that doesn't even have to be -- that can be professional women, a spouse, a mistress and a spouse. I've seen arguments and fights like that outside. You know, these women who have money, who are, you know, just like, oh my god. What are you doing at my husband's funeral?
BOOKERYou know you're not invited here, you know. And so we've seen things like that too.
FISHERAnd when you see -- in those gang kinds of homicides, do you see people bringing the beef from the street into the funeral home?
BOOKERWe did have a situation like that. We used the church down the street and it got really messy between a family and some gang members. So the family members felt like the gang members were being disrespectful. And when they confronted them it just -- it got out of control. And there was a brawl inside of the church and the police had to be called. So I think people deal with their emotions so differently.
BOOKERAnd even, you know, we were just talking about does everyone have the right to be buried. Even these gang members, when they pass away, they're gang members. They're fellow gang members. They feel it and they feel the loss too because that's their family essentially. And so they don't know how to deal with their grief necessarily, but they feel that loss.
FISHERWhen -- we have just a few seconds left but what did you take from your nine years in the funeral business as -- you know, if there was one tip you could give people when a loved one passes away and they have to make arrangements, what's one thing that people don't know that they really ought to know?
BOOKERI think that you just have to have an honest conversation with the funeral director. And I think that we try to avoid this conversation about death with our loved ones. But, you know, I always feel like the funeral process is about the people who are left here living. But I think we have to have more conversations about this so that you can know your loved one's wishes and what they exactly want. And so that you're not carrying a financial burden at the end of the day and so that you're making these arrangements so that you can be prepared.
FISHERSheri Booker's book "Nine Years Under: Coming of Age in an Inner-City Funeral Home." It's just out. She's a writer, poet, spoken-word artist, a photographer and a teacher in Baltimore. We have an excerpt of her book on our website at kojoshow.org. Take a look at that and thanks very much for joining us.
BOOKERIt was a pleasure. Thank you.
FISHERI'm Marc Fisher sitting in for Kojo Nnamdi. Thanks for being here.
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