|Inland Southern California||
Feeding fascination for hearses
On their first date, Chris Neiman picked up his girlfriend in a car to die for. A secondhand hearse.
"If I'd known, I don't think I would have gone out with him," says Nissa Neiman, who's now his wife. "I might have thought he's a psycho."
Nah. Neiman, who's 30, is a fourth-grade teacher at Wilson Elementary School in Colton who happens to dig death coaches. He owns a black one and a blue one. A gruesome twosome, you might say.
Neiman, who lives in Riverside, doesn't really see them that way. He doesn't crack morbid jokes or snigger about them as check-out chariots or stiff shifters.
He does indulge in a little black humor, though: a fake arm dangles from the back of the blue hearse, which bears the vanity plate, "Comin 4U." Overall, though, the decor is more playful than morbid. The windows are lined with stuffed animals.
But Neiman is dead serious when he says, "Hearses are beautiful. It's hard to find any two the same, because each one has custom-built accessories."
Ever since he was 16, funeral cars intrigued him. He loved their sleek, elegant lines, the high-arching fins, the brocade curtains, the massive doors, the aura of mystery, the echo of eternity.
Nine years ago he paid $3,500 to a dealer in Burbank for his first coffin carriage, a 1969 Cadillac three-way -- meaning there are three doors for loading a casket.
Neiman figures his car has carried some 1,500 passengers to their final destination. Which explains why most hearses don't come equipped with radios, air conditioning or automatic windows.
A year ago Christmas he bagged his blue beauty for $2,500 off eBay from a guy in Oregon. This car is another 1969 Caddie, but it's an endloader -- meaning a casket must be loaded from the back. Because it's 22 feet long, his recycled hearse is ideal for hauling groceries, furniture, lumber and large appliances.
On the grim side, the funeral coach is hard to park and sumptuously dines on gas, eking out 10 to 16 miles per gallon.
But the attention is worth the ghastly mileage. "Everybody sees you," Neiman says. If Nissa, 30, is asleep, slumped against the passenger door, "people really look at you," she says.
The kids at school flock to what they have dubbed Mr. Neiman's "monster car" or "dead car."
To socialize with other funeral car fiends, Neiman joined the Phantom Coaches Hearse Club. Its motto: "Put the fun back in funeral."
The group boasts some 200 members (who prefer being called "dismembers," please). Neiman numbers among at least a half dozen from the Inland Empire. A bony hand reaches from a grave, a skull grins and blood drips from the Web site, www.phantomcoaches.org.
Neiman served as a former officer, known as "chairman of the morgue." Club members get their kicks caravaning to Vegas, decorating their cars in wreaths for "Christmas cruises" and convoying to a town near San Francisco called Colma, which is full of cemeteries.
But the Phantom Coaches really come alive in October. They're in demand at haunted houses, Halloween supply stores and car shows.
Neiman speaks gravely of the group's long, ghostly processions. Their longest: 84 hearses en route to Knott's Scary Farm.
"We're not really ghoulish," he says. "This is all about preservation, fund-raising and entertainment."
Laurie Lucas can reached by email at email@example.com or by phone at 782-7518.