For most, the sight of a hearse elicits an immediate feeling of sobriety, respect, and even dread. For others, however, hearses have a beauty that should be embraced and cherished. And then there are those hearse fanatics who are drawn to the vehicles’ macabre charm.
“You have to look past their original somber funereal purpose to what lies beneath,” writes Sandra Mitchell, who runs the U.K.-based Classic Hearse Register, one of dozens of hearse clubs in the United States and Europe. Mitchell extols “the stylish coach-built bodywork, the ornate chrome flower rails and filigree, the polished wood of the deck and the distinctive black paintwork.”
Indeed, old hearses can be some of the most interesting vintage vehicles on the road, thanks to their custom design and what are often handcrafted details. Hearse enthusiasts tend to fall into two camps. The first are collectors who are active or retired funeral directors, who like their funeral coaches tasteful and tend to frown on some of the more extroverted owners. Then there are exactly those owners, the ones who are attracted to hearses because of the statement they make when travelling down the road.
Among these rabid enthusiasts, some stand even further from the crowd, like HearseClub.com founder Zachary Byron Helm. Hearses have been his all-encompassing passion for years, something he pursues with a purpose and intensity found only in those whose obsession with any extreme lifestyle can never be truly slaked, only temporarily satisfied.
“I own eight hearses and don’t drive a ‘regular’ car,” the 34-year-old Helm says.
He never set out to form a club, but Helm was looking for some camaraderie with other owners, to hang out with people who shared his passion. He had sold a hearse to a local guy, so after a while he figured he’d call him up. The two of them started driving their hearses around together and that’s how his club got started. While it was once a big deal when they had five hearses show up at an event, they’ve seen as many as 34 at some of their recent gatherings.
“I liked the cars at first because there had been dead bodies in the back,” Helm says. “I was 19, immortal in my own mind, and I didn’t know anyone who had died at the time. It was the whole Goth thing. Driving a hearse is about as total Goth as you can get. As time went on, the death aspect fell more into the background and I got into the vehicle itself. Now I can talk about the cars themselves, who made it, its good and bad points.”
Helm lives in Englewood, Colorado, but he has traveled as far as Lincoln, New Jersey, some 1,775 miles, to inspect a hearse he was contemplating buying. “I didn’t end up buying it, though. The farthest I’ve gone to buy one was South Dakota.”
Helm says hearses tend to sell for 25 percent of what a normal version of that model -- often a Cadillac -- would sell for. “The hobby is for people who don’t have a ton of money,” he says.
The demographics of Helm’s hearse club membership are surprisingly diverse, with members of all ages joining up especially in recent years. “There was no one over 25 at first,” he says. “Now it’s people in their 30’s, 40’s, 50’s and 60’s, orthodontists, doctors, you name it. We have members in their teens. The only demographic we don’t get are funeral directors, as odd as that is.”
Just like any regular car, hearses have to be roadworthy all-year-round. Helm says hearses navigate the Colorado snow especially well, particularly Cadillacs, due to the immense weight of their casket table, which is centered directly over the rear axle.
Hearse ownership isn’t always easy, though. “They break down, family members don’t like it, or people at places of employment don’t like it. People feel alienated and it can get tiresome,” says Helm. “A club lets you feel you’re not crazy for driving one, and less isolated.”
There are benefits to driving a hearse, especially when merging or passing on the highway. “Bigger and uglier wins every time, when someone in a Lexus doesn't want to let you over. For the record, I don't think hearses are ugly by any means, but to your average SUV and luxury car driver, they present an immediate threat when they start coming over into your lane without permission and people tend to back off. A twenty-two foot long, 7,000-plus pound car tends to convey a message, and that message is ‘The person driving this car may not be quite right in the head and may have no compunctions about turning your luxury sedan into a $70,000 skateboard.’”Not surprisingly, some misunderstand and mistrust those who would drive a hearse for regular transportation, and it can lead to some overt hostility. “We don't go out and intentionally cause disruptions,” says Helm, “But there are people who don't like our group and feel like we're destructive anyway. Neighbors complain about the cars and tend to call code enforcement all day long, funeral directors think we're cheapening their profession. There are those who feel we do cause harm, but it's those who are easily offended. I often picture our detractors as the same people who yell at the cashiers in line at the grocery store or who write frothing letters to the editor, so I'm not usually inclined to give much credence to their opinions anyway.”