A man and his hearse

HOBBY: There's nothing ghoulish about collecting these classic vehicles, except maybe some dark humor.

October 27, 2000
hearse EASY TO LOVE: Clarence Williams of Santa Ana owns two hearses, or coaches as they are called. He belongs to a national club of hearse owners and says members are normal folk.Click image for larger photo.
Photo by PAUL E. RODRIGUEZ/ The Orange County Register

The Orange County Register

Step in, sit down, check the rearview mirrors, because that is how you will do most of your navigating.

Touch the brocade. Start the car. Hear the rumble. Then move your 21-foot-long, 7-foot-wide vehicle out of your garage, which is open at both ends to accommodate it.

Pray nothing feels the need to get behind you. Then feel the hum and the immense pleasure of getting seven miles to the gallon.

Know that most of the people you pass will not fear you, but there will always be a few who want you to take your big honking car and never pass their way again.

"Driving it never creeped me. Hey, people didn't die in my car,'' says Robert Van Doren of Lake Forest; "they were just there for the ride.''

Ah, the dark humor and apparent joys of hearse ownership.

This is your time of year, you know, if you own one. People want you to lead parades - 84 hearses from five states opened Knott's Scary Farm -- and they want you show up for scary movies and at haunted houses and at fund-raisers and charity concerts billed as, yes, "The Blood Drive."

And some people just like the excuse Halloween gives them to ask to sit in your car and feel its vibe.

It's vibe is actually kind of nice - cushy front seat, curtains on the windows, hidden compartments. But be advised that sometimes the windows in the back seat don't roll down, and there's no way to get a/c back there. (Ventilation being something the people this car was built for had already given up needing.)

Still, it's a special kind of person who owns a hearse. In the case of the folks in the Southern California-based international club, Phantom Coaches, they're mostly car folks who positively delight in talking comparative chassises and the advantages of the side- over the back-loader.

They also occasionally run Dead Body relay races. (No one dies. Great fun at the embalmers, though.) Have a newsletter called The Epitaph. Remind each other of a new collection of Eudora Welty's photographs of the cemeteries of 1930s Mississippi.

Normal folk. One guy is a summons server, but that's about as odd as it gets. (After all, "If you take yourself too seriously, you shouldn't be driving one," Clarence Williams says.) Of course, Van Doren remembers that the hearse club he was in before had a woman in it who said she was a vampire and even told Jerry Springer that, and that kind of thing does his kind of people no good.

You can see that.

But really, the Phantom Coaches Hearse Club comprises people like Williams who, when he was really little, was with his family stopped at a Santa Ana stoplight in their Nova station wagon when a hearse pulled alongside. Clarence got a really good look and figured it was "a station wagon for rich people. My mother never thought to correct me."

He says his hearses - he had two - are easy to love. "They're a nice entry-level collectible car." That is, you can get one for a couple grand.

They are easy to find - "a lot of people don't like them," Williams says, "because probably it reminds them of their own mortality."

And they are also hard to get rid of. But, still, they come with such nice low mileage.

The right term -- should you ever find yourself talking casually about them -- is "funeral coach." The best one to have is a '59 Cadillac. Know that virtually no two hearses are alike because they were custom-built and hand-crafted.

Know that caskets are considered a nice accessory, if a tad cliché. Know that your friends will ask if you're available if they die.

Williams' coach has only been "used for service" once since he has owned it. That was when his mother died a year ago and her cremains were ferried to Point Loma to be placed alongside Clarence's father's remains.

Williams, who talks nonstop, stops. His father died at 2, he says, and maybe since "death was in our family already, we weren't taught to be afraid of it."

It is part of life. Like a good car.

Besides, his mother had loved his hearse.

It was especially great when she went overboard and bought big at a garage sale.