Dismal Trade Interview: Growing Up in a West Baltimore Funeral Home

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Sheri Booker was fifteen years old when she began working in a West Baltimore funeral home. Nine Years Under is her memoir about coming of age while coming to grips with something most American twenty-somethings haven’t even begun to confront: her own outlook on death.

In this conversation, we talked about that attitude, about the the role sex and race play in where Americans choose to have our loved ones funeralized, and how saying you’ve worked at a funeral home is the trump card at any dinner party.  (Check out earlier Dismal Trade interview with the filmmakers of a documentary about  green burial here.)

nine years

First book review!! And it’s a good one!!!

O, happy day!
O, happy day!

Hey, friends!

Two exciting book reviews this week. Exciting because they’re my first two. Ever.*

Publisher’s Weekly writes that “Sweeney writes with a deft touch and with empathy for mourners, whose stories she relays with clarity and care.”

I feel like breathing a sigh of relief, y’all, just to hear someone in book-reviewing-authorityland say that they liked it. While in reality, I’m not shocked—I believe I wrote a fine book—I ALSO have just been so close to it for so long that I forget it might actually function successfully out in the world. Does that make any sense at all? I feel a little like one of my heroes who does a very different kind of writing, Allie Brosh of the brilliant cartoon Hyperbole and a Half. She wrote somewhere that when she left home to start her first book tour, she half-expected her publishers to meet her at the airport and say something like “Haha! There’s no book! You actually believed us! Fool!”  This first review is the opposite of that evil laugh laden nightmare.

Just as Cool

I also got this really nice review from a reader via Netgalley. Katherine Pitts wrote: “I kept reading bits of it aloud to those around me and mentioning it in conversation…”

Here’s the thing. To see an actual reader—not a “pro” of any sort—say that the book made death fascinating to her, just made my day.  I wrote her a thank-you note. (This may seem weird to you, but it’s how I was raised.) I did not write in this thank-you note: “Good! It worked! The book worked! Hahaha!” even though that’s what I felt like writing. “Worked” meaning: “Communicated the thing in the meaningful way I’d hoped.” Oh, thankgoodnessitworked. Even for one person.

(Note: You can still pre-order the book at your local bookseller, or on Amazon. But you knew that.)

(*I had decided not to read reviews at all, but then my husband emailed me the Publisher’s Weekly link with the note: “Uhh, I really think you should check this out.”)

Oh, and finally, thanks to Creative Loafing Atlanta for naming me one of “20 People to Watch” in 2014. I’m just warning you: I’m a terrible dancer. Enthusiastic, though. That might be worth watching for a minute or two.

Dismal Trade Interview: the Filmmakers Behind “A Will for the Woods”

Green burial, first person: A still from 'A Will for the Woods'
Green burial, first person: A still from ‘A Will for the Woods’

Amy Browne discovered green burial when she was in her early twenties and going through some medical challenges. She remembers driving by a conventional cemetery one day and just feeling a shiver go through her. “I don’t want to go there,” she thought. Then her sister told her about green burial. It changed things for her.

“[F]or a lot of people, there’s this odd..disassociation with going back to the soil. It’s only about worms, and things like that—but we wanted to show the beauty of it, the way that for a lot of people, when it comes down to it, it’s very calming to think your nutrients go back to the soil.”

Today, Amy’s the co-director of the moving and visually stunning documentary A Will for the Woods, which follows one family’s experience with green burial and home funerals. (View the trailer here.) Technically, green burial means no non-biodegradable products are placed into the earth, but there’s a larger mission of ecosystem preservation, too. (For more on that, you can visit with the Green Burial Council.)

In the first of several conversations on this site with people involved with death and funeral practices, here’s my phone interview with filmmakers Amy Browne, Jeremy Kaplan, Tony Hale and Brian Wilson. The sound quality isn’t great, but I think the content of the conversation merits my giving you a listen anyway.

Want more? Check out this Dismal Trade interview with Sheri Booker, who came of age working in a West Baltimore funeral home, starting when she was 15 year old.

Book Launch de los Muertos


Happy Dia de los Muertos!

On Dia de los Muertos, the souls of our departed loved ones may return to earth to pay us a visit. (Credit: flickr.com/p0tpie)
On Dia de los Muertos, the souls of our departed loved ones may return to earth to pay us a visit.
(Credit: flickr.com/p0tpie)

I kind of want to walk into this photograph. I love the Dia de los Muertos tradition of placing candles, flowers, incense and sumptuous picnics at family graves—and I was thinking of writing something here like, “Go decorate the grave of your loved one today!” But even as I thought it, I considered the two graves I’d be moved to visit. There’s one grandmother–the one we called Banny—who’s buried  in Pennsylvania, and another (whom we called Nona), up in North Carolina. I live in Atlanta—like so many of us today, I’m geographically distant from most of my family members, living and dead. The family cemetery plot is becoming more and more rare in this nation. So if you’re moved to, why not light a candle or two at home today? That’s my plan. Viva, Banny and Nona!

What else. Oh, I know.

We’re planning a party! A book launch party!

And you are oh, so invited.

Mark your calendar for Friday, March 14th at 7:30 pm, and come on down to Manual’s Tavern in Atlanta for live music, raconteurs from Carapace, Atlanta’s amazing storytelling outfit; and more. A Capella Books will be selling brand-spankin’ new copies of American Afterlife (Did you see the pretty cover? Yes, of course you did); I’ll be signing them, and, if I have my way, there will be marigolds.

The scent of marigolds is believed to guide family spirits to the Dia de los Muertos feast.
The scent of marigolds is believed to guide family spirits to the Dia de los Muertos feast.



Book News and Late-’70s Radio Rock News

A.K.A. Two Childhood Dreams Made Real

We’ve chosen a cover image for the book. It’s a little unsettling, quite beautiful, and suits the work well. And really, all this book stuff still feels very Christmas-morning-y to me, as in: What a thrill when a group of seasoned publishing pros all agree that this unsettling-and-quite-beautiful photo suits 200-some pages of my very hard work. What a thrill to talk fonts and design and preferred styles for quotes. What a thrill to talk ARC date (October) and pub date (March) and pre-pub-date AWP copies for late February. (Yessiree!)

This is what I’ve wanted to do with my life since I was six, and I’m finally not (only) in a room, by myself, and not (only) in a car, alone, on the way to or from someplace where I interview amazing people and witness amazing things and then rush home to write, write, write about them. There are other people—a relatively small circle, still—reading what I wrote and saying: “More people should read this. We want to make this happen.” This very thought still sends me over the moon.

I’m feeling grateful tonight.

Also, here’s something weird, for which I’m also oddly thankful:

Sunday night, I’m introducing Roger Hodgeson as he performs at a show here in town that the radio station is sponsoring.

“Who’s Roger Hodgeson?” you ask.

Roger Hodgeson’s the guy with the high voice from Supertramp. The guy who sang, “There are tiiiiiimes when all the world’s asleep/these questions run too deep/for such a simple maaaaan.” That guy.

How on earth did this end up happening? I mean, I know how it’s happening. It’s happening because when I got a list of concerts that needed introducers from my boss, I jumped on this one.

It’s surreal. Rather than a thing for work, this feels instead like a slice of my childhood showing up as some sci-fi hologram that I’m supposed to step into now, in my mid-30s. For me, Supertramp = Riding along in the backseat of my dad’s black VW Rabbit as a child, peeling the ceiling-lining from the roof as we listen to Breakfast in America. “Goodbye Stranger.” “The Logical Song.” And ESPECIALLY “Take the Long Way Home.”

I still really love the album. It’s a love that’s powered its way through several Supertamp-mocking boyfriends and one Supertramp-indifferent husband. I will still play Breakfast in America in the late stages of a car trip I’m taking by myself, and I will still sing, sing, sing along, like it’s the early ’80s and I’m seven and it’s always this perfect moment. If I can roll down the windows, even better. Tomorrow night, when I’m up on that stage welcoming Roger Hodgeson to our fair city, I’ll be in my own world. And thinking, again, with a weird, wild start: How exactly, is this happening? 

First-ever True Story Writing Workshop!

True Story Writing Workshop
Write-y write write.
Photo credit: Mike Thomas

Hey, y’all. Good news!

It’s tough when you have three true loves. In my case, that’d be writing, radio and teaching. In my ideal world, each week of my life would include all three. For sanity’s sake, I had to put aside the writing classes I was teaching at Emory Continuing Ed this spring while I finished final edits of the book while continuing both to run the reading series and work full-time producing radio stories at the station.

I know, I know. Not such a bad fix to be in.

But, now! Here’s the awesome:

Saturday, July 13th, I’ll be running a one-day nonfiction writing workshop at Peachtree City Library. I’ve taught at University of NC-Wilmington as a grad student, I’ve taught at Clayton State University and at Emory, but I’m thee-rilled to get to spend five hours with folks leading this intensive class. We’ll be workshopping essays-in-progress, doing some excellent revision exercises, and untangling all sorts of thorny craft issues. (Bring your gardening gloves. That metaphorical pair.) Participants will then have the option of taking part in a live reading the following Thursday. The whole thing’s $25. It will be supportive. It will be fun. It will be worth your while.

(And for you True Story followers: Yes, there will be artifacts.)

I really can’t wait. Space is limited, but last I heard, there are still a few open spots. For more info, visit Peachtree City Library’s site. Registration deadline, with a draft of the essay you’d like to workshop, is Friday, July 5th. See ya!

Wired for Meaning

Or: Why I Won’t Walk Under Ladders.*

 A few weeks ago, I wrote this:
Better safe than sorry.
A few more times, just to be safe

“Cat’s back. He’s cradled between my chest and the computer now, resting his head on my left wrist, making it impossible to move that hand laterally to type. And I put up with it, because, yes, I love this moment and I love this beast. The relief and comfort I feel is exactly what I’d feel were we truly somehow involved in a balanced relationship, the two of us feeling the same level of devotion. And in the end, it doesn’t really matter that this isn’t true, that, in reality, he is a different species with a limited set of motivations. Dangercat enacts all the behaviors that trigger my own gushing affection. As a human being, I am wired to read too much into everything.”

I’ve been thinking a great deal about reading into things lately. About how, as human beings, we are, as I said, wired to search for meaning, to search for the reasons things happen—to try to bring them on or to prevent them. Superstition. How it governs the places we least understand. The places closer than everyday life to the unknown, to death.

The sailors had (and still have) 1,001 rules for keeping safe at sea. My grandmother was born in the nineteen-teens in rural North Carolina, a time and place where bad crops, tornadoes, accidents and illness could and did destroy lives in ways more capricious than what I expect from daily events in this world I know. She her own sets of rules for warding off bad luck. She did not set hats on the bed. She did not open umbrellas inside. She had a method, says my mother, for removing warts that involved stump water.

And, says my rational-as-her-mother-was-superstitious mother, it worked.

I wrote some about superstition in the book, but I’m thinking about it now in a broader sense. How it’s possible sometimes not to hold rational credence in a given cause-and-effect relationship, but still to go through actions designed to ward of ill consequences. (The little kid, thinking If I step on this crack, I know it won’t break my mother’s back. But still, the veiled threat of something seems very real.) How shadowy threats are sometimes the most effective, because we can fill in our own blanks with what terrifies us most. How odd it is that our humanity has provoked in every culture elaborate behaviors meant to ward off ill; consider the distance between the words as we think them: “ill,” “evil,” “danger,” “hell,” “damnation,” and death.

*(I have no idea why I won’t walk under ladders; I just won’t.)

“This is the stubborn sun/choosing to rise”

Last night, I read a Facebook post from the comedian Patton Oswalt, of all people, responding to the tragedy in Boston. It wasn’t cheeky or sassy at all. He just talked about how–and of course, I’m paraphrasing–even horrific acts don’t destroy goodness or serve as some evidence of a basic evil in humankind. I went to bed thinking about that and woke up with this poem by Kathleen Sheeder Bonanno running through my brain.

Kathleen Sheeder Bonanno, “Poem About Light”

You can try to strangle light:
use your hands and think
you’ve found the throat of it,
but you haven’t.
You could use a rope or a garrote
or a telephone cord,
but the light, amorphous, implacable,
will make a fool of you in the end.

You could make it your mission
to shut it out forever,
to crouch in the dark,
the blinds pulled tight—

still, in the morning,
a gleaming little ray will betray you, poking
its optimistic finger
through a corner of the blind,
and then more light,
clever, nervy, impossible,
spilling out from the crevices
warming the shade.

This is the stubborn sun,
choosing to rise,
like it did yesterday,
like it will tomorrow.
You have nothing to do with it.
The sun makes its own history;
light has its way.

Intellect to Gut to Bones: A Visit to South-View Cemetery

Marker in South-View Cemetery

We went to the historic cemetery for the same reason the two of us visit any historic landmark: because we both love true stories and the feeling of the past in those rare moments when fine details cause time to accordion in on itself, resulting in a rush that resonates from intellect to gut to your bones. We live in Atlanta, a city where history has been largely erased.

Sometimes? And I’m not kidding, here—It’s hidden below ground. I’m thinking now of the zero mile marker post for Terminus, the city that would later become Atlanta. That post is still physically located in the same spot where it was first placed in 1850, but now it’s in Underground Atlanta, a subsurface shopping mall boasting “220,000 feet of commercial space” with a side of history.

(From the “History” page on Underground Atlanta’s website:

“The railroad depot that stood between Pryor Street and Central Avenue was where Scarlett O’Hara and doctors worked frantically over Confederate soldiers, wounded in battles surrounding the city in the fictional movie ‘Gone with the Wind’….A Union camp was established near Underground Atlanta.”

Hoorah for mash-ups of history, fantasy and the present day! Care for an Orange Julius, Colonel?)

To tell it more accurately, the zero milepost is actually kind of adjacent to Underground, in a small, usually-locked office owned by Georgia State University. Not a lot of people know about it. The same is true of a lot of the history here, which is what makes it deeply satisfying, in a scavenger-hunt sort of way, to experience brushes with it. Or maybe I’m just the sort of budding historiphile who’se also a masochist. I’m not sure yet. (Seriously. I went to New Orleans a few weeks after this and the living, breathing presence of history everywhere I turned kind of totally blew my mind to pieces.)


Anyway, I had a magazine assignment to write a short-short about historic cemeteries around town. My smart editor ticked some off—“You know, so, Oakland and South-View of course, and maybe one or two more.” South-View is a renowned historic African American cemetery. I was embarrassed to admit I’d never been.

I did not admit I’d never been. Well, I guess I’m admitting it now.

South-View's mighty oak from a distance
I became kind of obsessed with this mighty oak tree during out visit, snapping at least a dozen photos of it from different spots. It seemed to stand like a sentinel.

South-View Cemetery is in Jonesboro, just south of Atlanta, and it’s huge. 200 acres, first established in the late 1800s, during Reconstruction. The interpretive brochure on the Cemetery is refreshingly blunt.

“Blacks had grown tired of the disrespect they were forced to endure in order to bury their family members and friends. They had to enter cemeteries through back gates, and even wade through swamped to conduct funeral services. They were told, ‘If you don’t like it, start your own cemetery,’ And so they did.”

Kind of incredible to consider the fact that Martin Luther King's father was born at the close of the 19th century.
Kind of incredible to consider the fact that Martin Luther King’s father was born at the close of the 19th century.

A small group of business owners established South-View in 1886. Reverend and Mrs. Martin Luther King, Senior, are buried here, as well as a host of famous names like Alonzo Herndon and John Wesley Dobbs. Others, too, not so famous: Business-people who ran grocery stores and nightclubs. The first principal of the first black high school.

And if you stop for just two seconds and consider this as you walk the place and look at each quiet grave, you realized how extraordinary this was. Schoolteacher. (Carrie Watts.) Drugstore owner. (Clayton Yates.) These were the first generations of people to obtain these roles after Emancipation from enslavement, in circumstances geared absolutely against them. Walking through South-View, we watched the strata build for successive achievements: Here was the first African American man ever to graduate from West Point; here was grandfather of Atlanta’s first black mayor.

Two gravestones, fallen over side by side at South-View Cemetery
Two gravestones, fallen over side by side at South-View Cemetery

And this.

Midway through the audio tour we came upon a gravestone whose rounded top bore a broken bite-mark. This was the grave of George “Union” Wilder, a Civil War veteran who was shot and killed, according to the audio tour, after arming his neighbors during the imprecisely-named “Race Riots” of 1906 in Atlanta—really, a widespread slaughter of black citizens by white citizens following a race-baiting gubernatorial campaign and a series of fallacious newspaper stories about the rape of white women by black men.

According to official accounts of the time, 25 black people and one white person were killed. Historians have since placed the likely number of deaths of people of color at more than 100. Although South-View contains a number of unmarked burials from the riot, Wilder’s is the only identified grave.

George "Union" Wilder's gravestone
Gravestone of George “Union” Wilder, who was killed in the 1906 Atlanta Race Riots
South-View Cemetery non-perpetual care section marker
The South-View Preservation Foundation was only established in 2006. There’s still a lot of fixing-up work to be done in the cemetery’s historic non-perpetual care section.

20 years before the riots, Henry Grady optimistically proclaimed a “new south” composed of a people unified, looking boldly forward, with no rancor or bias in their hearts. One ordinary Sunday a century later, we visited a place that put us face to face with evidence contradicting that ideal. That evidence is small, easy to walk right by without noticing, and nearly impossible to read, but once you see it, it’s striking. Once you see it, you can’t un-see it.

South-View's Mighty Oak