Hearse Fest returns for its thirteenth year to Hell, Michigan 

Hold Your Hearses

Ronnie Duke owns two hearses. Andrew Mosier has just one. Frank Hedeen has three (down from seven).

These guys aren't in the funeral business. They're not even necessarily goths — though Duke, with his multiple tattoos and piercings, seems to have a penchant for the dark side. They're all members of Just Hearse N' Around, Michigan's largest and longest-running club for hearse enthusiasts, which will soon host its 13th annual Hearse Fest meetup in — duh — Hell, Michigan.

For many, that Saturday is the official kickoff of the Halloween season — what Thanksgiving is to Christmas. "I'd say, like, 95 percent of the people that drive a hearse are really into Halloween as well," Duke says. "They kind of go hand in hand."

The other common thread that unites hearse enthusiasts is that many of them are tinkerers. Duke says the reasons for that are pragmatic: "When you're driving a 40-year-old car, you need to be able to do little things here and there just to keep it going."

"We've got enough storage space," Mosier adds. "We could stash a carjack and belts and hoses and everything else."

Though based in Michigan, the club has members from all over the country. People regularly make a road trip from places as far away as Connecticut, New York, Canada, Pennsylvania, Minnesota, Illinois, Ohio, and Indiana. The club has celebrity members in the likes of Elvira (Mistress of the Dark), car designer George Barris, Dustin Diamond (Saved by the Bell's "Screech"), and Butch Patrick (aka Eddie Munster).

"We saw Butch Patrick on a Saturday in Chicago and gave him one of our shirts," Hedeen says. "When we were coming back on Sunday, we saw him wearing it."

Hedeen organized the first meetup in 1999. He didn't even know enough people who drove hearses to warrant a club, really. "You get in a hearse and drive around. You find one, and you find another one," he says. "That's basically how the club started."

The meetup in Hell started when Hedeen was speaking with one John F. Colone — the proprietor of Screams Ice Cream, Hell in a Handbasket, and the Hell Wedding Chapel, Colone serves as Hell's unofficial mayor. "He had a car show, and I asked him if he ever did one with hearses," Hedeen says. "His eyes just lit up." The first official meetup in Hell was held in 2001, and hosted perhaps 20 cars.

The club used to also set up cars in a lot off of the Woodward Dream Cruise. "You see someone driving a hearse, and you flag them down. They think they're the only one out there with a hearse, and then they see the rest of us."

Last year, Duke says more than 70 cars showed up. "You never can tell. It all comes down to gas prices, really," he says. "When you're driving a car that gets nine or 10 miles to the gallon, that stops a whole lot of people from making that long journey!"

"They're older cars," Hedeen says, "and sometimes you'll have people say they're making it and they never show up."

Hedeen, a retired Detroit cop, says he got his first hearse "after I died." His appendix ruptured 19 years ago, just before his fortieth birthday, and he had to be hospitalized. He bought his first hearse six months after that. "Everyone says, 'When you died, you didn't see the white light — you saw the black light,'" he jokes. It wasn't long after that, that Hedeen picked up a second. "Everyone says, 'Why do you have two?' I say, 'Well, you got 'his' and 'hearse.'"

Actually, Hedeen says his wife initially refused to ride in it. "She would ride in it with her eyes closed," he says. "Now she loves riding in them."

Many people can't get past the association between hearses and death. "I tell them, people don't die in hearses," Hedeen says. "It's like a UPS truck — you're just picking up a package and delivering it."

Duke got his first hearse 15 years ago, when he was 22. "I basically grew up a poor kid, didn't have a whole lot of money," he says. "I drove past the same hearse parked in a guy's front yard every day for almost two years. I stopped in there one day, talked to the guy about his car, and I said, 'Obviously you're not doing anything with it.' I picked it up for the $900 he paid for it three years prior to that."

Duke says he just wanted to have a different car, so his car wasn't just like the one parked next to it in the parking lot. "The car stands out. It gets attention, which makes it fun to drive," he says. "You pull up at a stop light, and you got people pulling out their cameras and their phones taking pictures and leaning out the windows to ask you questions. It's not just driving a car. It's a whole new experience."

Duke says some members of the club use their hearses as daily drivers. One member of the club is a construction worker, and uses the vehicle's ample space for all his tools. Duke says his hearses are great for picking up groceries, and his young daughter loves getting dropped off at school in it.

Few club members are precious about their cars. "Some of them are 100 percent stock. They don't want to put anything in the car, they don't want to scratch it, they don't want it to get dirty," Duke says.

"Most car shows you go to, you'll see the owner of the car sitting reading a book and says, 'You can look, but don't touch,'" Hedeen adds. "Out there in Hell, maybe 1 percent of people are like that. Everybody opens it up so you can crawl in and sit inside."

"The average car club guy, he's got a souped-up Camaro or whatnot," says Duke. "You've got a 50-50 shot that he knows how to do it and did it himself, or it's the guy who just bought the car and has somebody else maintain it because he has no clue."

Duke says that the varied nature of hearses makes it a more interesting club as well. "You got a Ford Mustang club, they're all Ford Mustangs. You got a Corvette club, they're all Chevy Corvettes. Hearses can be Cadillacs, Lincolns, Fords, Buicks, Pontiacs — it could be anything. That makes it unique."

Hedeen describes it as more like a get-together than a club. "If you can make it, you can make it. There's no dues in our club. If you don't make a cruise, you don't get penalized like a lot of clubs do," he says. Mosier adds that you don't even need to own a hearse to be in the club. "You can just come and hang out and talk about cars," he says.

"When we get together, it's just like a backyard barbecue, but it's just in a parking lot," Hedeen says. He's even converted a casket into an eight-burner gas grill, which he tows to Hell just for the occasion.

Other entertainment includes go-karts made out of caskets, a pinewood derby, hosts Creepy Clyde and DJ Surfer Joe, and music by the Gutter Ghouls. There might even be a wedding, though Duke says details haven't been confirmed yet. The club will also issue awards in various categories, such as best in show, "How the Hell Did It Get Here?" scariest, most modified, original, and more.

So where does one get a hearse? Hedeen says in the old days, you could only really get hearses from CW Coach Sales in Cincinnati. These days, you can find one on eBay or Craigslist with relative ease — just be prepared to make a long road trip.

"It used to be in years gone by that nobody was interested in driving a car like this," Duke says. "When the funeral home decided it was past its useful life, it went straight to the scrapyard. Now, they know they can make a few bucks."

Mosier concurs. "They could sell it for $1,000, or scrap it for $500."

So there is an afterlife — for hearses anyway. — mt

Hearse Fest starts at 10 a.m. on Saturday, Sept. 20, at 4025 Patterson Lake Road, Hell; more info at hearsefest.com.

More by Lee DeVito

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