Death becomes them 

Local View

Only as I drove away did it sink in, what I had done. Granted, plenty of people have lain in a coffin, in a hearse, in the middle of a cemetery, but very few are able to tell the tale of it.

I can.

Just as the sun was sinking behind the mountains on a recent Saturday, I met two members of the Pikes Peak Hearse Association at Evergreen Cemetery's entrance. I jumped into the passenger seat (sharing the space with two pugs), and we traveled into the nearly 140-year-old city burial ground.

While it sounds like the setup for a low-budget horror film, this meeting was just another way the local association sets out to demystify the funeral coach.

"Most people will not admit they want to see this," says Art Prince, 47, an association member who owns four hearses. "The hearse club allows people to peek inside."

The 15- to 20-member club offers not only "tours" of their cars, but also occasionally provides something of a creepy limo service to interested parties. They preach a sort of unexpected gospel, with Prince joking, "Don't let your first ride in a hearse be your last."

The attraction to the big, somber-looking vehicles varies from person to person. Some are drawn to all things spooky. Some are gearheads who enjoy fixing them up. Prince admits he's always liked looking at things that make other people uncomfortable, and hearses undoubtedly do.

That's something of a shame to certain PPHA members, who are committed to fighting misconceptions about the vehicles. They note that people don't actually die in these cars. (OK, Prince knows of one person who did. But that's the exception.) They maintain that hearses do not transport bloody bodies from accident scenes. (Again, the exception: Some hearses from the '70s doubled as ambulances.)

The hearse I was occupying belongs to Chris Mudd, aka Squirrel, the 30-year-old co-president of the association. It felt like one of my dad's Cadillacs from the '70s, except for the limo divider between the front and the back — which further decreased the creep factor.

There's no real science to finding hearses. People sometimes post cars to the group's page, and a quick look at Craigslist shows two for sale locally. Others are stumbled upon in barns or yards. "You'd be surprised how many little old ladies like and drive hearses," says Prince.

Squirrel says his day job as a garbage collector helps him spot potential buys: "We see things," he says. Other members don't have that advantage; Prince calls himself a "computer janitor" by trade. He adds that some of his colleagues are cops and firefighters.

As you can imagine, we're entering into the association's busy season, with appearances scheduled at haunted houses, the Emma Crawford coffin races and other ghoulish events. (To keep track, follow the Pikes Peak Hearse Association on Facebook.) But the association's members stay busy year-round. Club members get together for social gatherings and to travel to the summer HearseCon, a gathering of hearses from around the country hosted by the Denver Hearse Association.

"We're a tight-knit family," says Squirrel.

The group also spends time volunteering at Evergreen; from general cleanup to headstone restoration, the members assist the cemetery's Benevolent Society. "They're just great," says society director Dianne Hartshorn. "You can't judge a book by its cover."

Overall, the members show a healthy respect for the traditions around funerals and death. As we drove to the center of the cemetery for our interview, a family was gathered by a graveside with balloons and flowers. Squirrel and Prince were careful to avoid getting too close.

But still, I'd be lying if I said they were just like you and me. During HearseCon, Squirrel and Prince say, they sleep in their hearses. And, they insist, "Coffins are comfortable." Since Prince keeps a coffin in the back of his traditional hearse — his others use hydraulics, making them "lifted redneckers" — he asked, "Want to see?"

So I got in, laid down, and ... it really wasn't all that bad. And the back of the car itself was sparsely appointed but roomy. Still, if I ever wind up at HearseCon, I'll probably rent a hotel room.

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