The Business Of Death: Sheri Booker Talks About The Funeral Industry & Making Tough Decisions

July 14, 2014  |  

The funeral business might not be the top career choice for many women, but for Sheri J. Booker it’s where she learned many things about life and business. Now, she’s written about that experience in a new memoir entitled Nine Years Under: Coming of Age in an Inner-City Funeral Home. 

The book focuses on how, at the age of 15, Booker accepted a summer job at the Wylie Funeral Home in West Baltimore. She wound up staying nine years, during which time she would not only witness the funerals of gang members, AIDS patients, cancer victims, young and old, but also learned about all aspects of the funeral home business. The book won this year’s NAACP Image Award for  Outstanding Literary Work by a Debut Author.

The funeral business is one that continues to grow. In fact, employment of funeral service workers is projected to grow 12 percent from 2012 to 2022, reports the National Funeral Directors Association. Revenue for both funeral homes and funeral home combined with crematories is projected to grow to $16.2 billion in 2014.

There are still fewer women than men in the industry, but this is changing. “In 1976, there were 343 women and 2,210 men enrolled in funeral schools in the United States, according to the American Board of Funeral Service Education, which accredits the schools. By 2000, women edged out men, 1,199 to 1,169, and the gap has kept growing. Last year, there were 1,605 women enrolled, compared with 1,219 men.,” reports The New York Times.

And now about 14 percent of the country’s funeral homes are owned by women, found a survey by the National Funeral Director’s Association. In 1998, the proportion was just five percent. Booker wants to make sure this trend continues.

MadameNoire: Why write about the funeral business? A Lot of people would shy away from a job, let alone a career, in the funeral business.

Sheri Booker: I wanted to take people inside this business. Most people don’t have a clear understanding about the business. There are many misconceptions. And the more people know about what happens in the funeral business, the better educated they will be when the time comes when they will have to arrange a funeral or deal with the industry. Funerals are expensive and people think that funeral directors only care about the money, but there is a lot that goes into creating a funeral. Oftentimes, people only hear about the bad side of the industry. I wanted to show them the reality. I wanted to give people insight into the process.

MN: What were your first impressions when you entered the business?

SB: I got involved young–15 years old. But it was very hard at first. It takes a special kind of person to be in the funeral business. You have to be compassionate but you can’t let your emotions take over.

When I first started, I found it hard not to cry. Funerals are sad occassions and I would just start crying. But then my boss explained to me that I needed to be strong for the families whose funerals we were arranging. They needed to have someone who was strong they could depend on. And I realized that I had to maintain my professional composure at all times not just for me but for our clients. I stopped crying.

MN: What are some of the mistakes people make when preparing for a funeral?

SB: They are not financially prepared, especially if there is no insurance coverage. People should determine their budgets. You can have a low-end or high-end funeral. Financial preparation is a must; funerals can be expensive.

MN: This may sound morbid, but should people prepare their own funeral?

SB: Yes! I tell my friends and family this is something you need to discuss with your family. It is not easy to do, but you need to tell your loved once what you want done in case of your death. And it is never too early to start saving for your own funeral. Even if you are 24 years old, you should start saving. And, I know discussing your funeral plans is not something you discuss at the dinner table, but it is a necessary conversation.

MN: What made you want to stay working at the funeral home for nine years?

SB: My boss would say, “Be a doctor,  not a funeral director.” But I realized there were very few women, very few African-American women especially, who owned their own funeral homes. There are some, of course, in the business but many inherited their businesses. My ultimate goal is to own my own funeral home.

MN: What are you currently doing?

SB: Right now, I am working on my next book. And I am figuring out when to go back to school to get my mortuary degree. I really believe I can have a successful business in the funeral industry.

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