For The Love of Hearses

The legendary creepy car is more than just a funeral coach.

By Toni Callwood

Hearses are the ultimate car for displaying one’s personality. (Art:  Hannah Buckman )

Hearses are the ultimate car for displaying one’s personality. (Art: Hannah Buckman)

Just over an hour west of Detroit, Mich., there is a one-stoplight town that, on the surface, seems unassuming. There are no major highways that run through it, so it’s rather easy to miss. It’s so small that Wikipedia doesn’t even list its population size.

Then again, another reason why this town is not exactly a vacation destination might be because of its name: Hell (the origin of which is still disputed today, as it is either due to a comment from a German traveller or the indifference of town founder, George Reeves).

But there is one group of people that have been known to visit and congregate in the town: hearse fans. Every year in September, niche auto aficionados gather in Hell for HearseFest, a one day celebration of the famed funerary car.

Organized by Just Hearse’n Around, one of many hearse clubs around the country, the event brings together people who love these unconventional automobiles. Started in in 2001 by Andrew Mosier, HearseFest has grown from a handful of die-hard fans to a large-scale event, with more than 100 hearses on display and attendees from far-flung places.  

One of the earliest members, Robert “Nix” Nixon, a graphic designer and Gen Xer from Detroit, became interested in hearses when a friend’s father picked him up in a 1962 hearse-turned-family-wagon for a trip to Cedar Point, an amusement park in Sandusky, Ohio.

A pragmatist to a fault, Nix’s love affair with the funeral coach began when he realized they deter car-door dents. After his day of roller-coaster fun, he and his friends “came back to the parking lot and found that nobody wanted to park near the hearse,” Nix told OK Whatever. “So there was a halo of empty spaces around the meat-wagon-turned-family-car. I thought that was so cool.”

Although he admires foreign-made hearses, he’s a true Motor City loyalist and owns a 1967 Cadillac Fleetwood. He drives it when he can, depending on the weather. (Because of Michigan’s frigid, snowy winters, he stores it out-of-state for preservation during off-seasons.) He’s also started an apparel brand called Dead Sled that caters to hearse fans with its dark color palette and lowbrow motifs.

Like Nix, who describes his style as “punk-goth,” many HearseFest attendees are interested in rockabilly, death-rock and punk, and often dress like they are in a music video by goth pioneers Bauhaus. The event’s ghoulish vibes also extend to the food, and, of course, the cars themselves. Slabs of meat are cooked in caskets that have been modified into grills, and many of the hearses on display are decked out with coffins and skeletons. (Granted, not all of the cars follow this theme. At a past event, one hearse had upward-lifting doors, like a Lamborghini, and faux-machine guns drilled into its hood.) Dogs are often prevalent, as are spookily dressed kids getting a head-start on Halloween. There is also pinewood derby car racing and a costume contest at the very end. Because some club members are ordained ministers, even weddings have been known to take place at the festivals. (Talk about a romantic place to exchange vows!)

The uniqueness of a hearse often extends beyond its exterior to the inside, as well. (Photo:  Robert Nixon )

The uniqueness of a hearse often extends beyond its exterior to the inside, as well. (Photo: Robert Nixon)

Detroit itself is a breeding ground for hearse clubs, not only because of the Big Three car manufacturers dotted throughout the tri-county area, but also because, creatively, it’s just a strange place. This Michigan city has produced gloriously oddball musical icons, such as Alice Cooper, Iggy Pop, and Jack White, and, as Nix puts it, “it's just in our DNA to be weird and creepy.”

Yet not all hearse fans reflect this eccentric stereotype. Steven Frey, founder of Nightmare Cruisers Hearse Club, which is also located in the Detroit area, is an engineer by day. In contrast to his more straight-laced lifestyle, he likes hearses because “it’s pretty cool that so many people are freaked out by them.” He originally bought a hearse in order to promote his Halloween business, Dr. Frybrain, which sells items like an embalmer for preserving carved pumpkins.

Nowadays, Frey uses his hearse primarily for car shows and organized cruising, but his club is also keen on giving back to the community. They’ll participate in philanthropic activities like cemetery clean-ups and Trunk-or-Treats, which are exactly what they sound like: opportunities for youngsters to go from car-to-car (or hearse-to-hearse) for Halloween treats.

Before founding Nightmare Cruisers Hearse Club, Frey was a member of Just Hearse‘n Around, and in 2011, he arranged the Guiness Book of Records’ longest hearse parade, where he boasts he was “the lead car.” Sadly, a hearse parade in the Netherlands topped this record-holding feat the following year.

HearseFest is held every September in Hell, Mich. (Photo:  Robert Nixon )

HearseFest is held every September in Hell, Mich. (Photo: Robert Nixon)

Hearses are catching on nationally, too. One only needs to Google “hearse clubs” and they’ll come across a multitude of websites dedicated to the ghoulish hotrods. Many of the sites look almost identical to each other and tend to favor black backgrounds and Windows 98-style animation. Aesthetic similarities aside, you’ll find hearse clubs everywhere from Atlanta to Los Angeles, and although most clubs are located in the States, they attract members from as far away as Australia.

In Denver, where hiking boots are daywear, there are also funeral car fanatics. Zachary Byron Helm, an ageless event organizer with a fuschia mohawk and constant stream of poop jokes, fell in love with hearses, like many other fans, when he saw 1984’s Ghostbusters. In 1996, he founded the Denver Hearse Association, and he’s been hosting the annual Coachella of hearse events, HearseCon, since the mid-00s. Like Hell’s HearseFest, there are hundreds of funeral cars to peruse, and there’s also onsite camping, as well as a macabre flea market and a hearse give-away contest.

As a hearse lover, Helm has amassed quite a collection of the vehicles over the years, including a 1967 Superior Cadillac and a 1964 Olds that he drives almost every day. He says he’s particularly drawn to hybrids — like the Cadillac Ecto-1 which is a combination hearse and ambulance.

But there’s also another lesser-publicized reason why he loves the strange cars: They’re great for sexual forays.

“Having a car that you can lay down in is an open invitation to get-it-on in as many public locations as possible,” he said. “And I’ll be damned if I’m going to turn down that opportunity.”

 

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