Drive-Thru Viewing

About once a month I troll the internet for funeral news like a weirdo. I search Youtube for news videos and also do some Google searches looking for any recent local news here in Florida. This habit has given me a few topics for blog posts (my personal favorite: ventilation in mausoleums and why it’s necessary), and it’s also given me news that I sincerely wish I could take back out of my brain, like the story about the young woman Julie Mott who was stolen from a funeral home in San Antonio after her viewing back in August of 2016. When the funeral home employees came in the next morning she was just…gone. And she still hasn’t been found. That story really haunted me and I still follow up about once a month to see if there is any more news about her.

Some of the stories I read are tragic and some are just downright bizarre, like the funeral director who decided to leave a body in a hearse parked at the back of his property for nine days because… well, he thought the body smelled bad and there was some protocol with the body being released for cremation. He didn’t want the body stored in his place and potentially scaring off customers. To his credit, he did in fact appear on camera for a news interview, because in many of these cases the person responsible won’t answer questions unless the authorities get involved.

And then there are the cases that don’t fit into the tragic category, and they don’t really fit in the bizarre category- they have a place all their own in the world of funeral news. I guess you could call them trendy. I give you the drive thru viewing. (Video compliments of YouTube.)

First, I want to say that I am not making fun of anyone here on this blog (Well, except for that one cemetery that I absolutely can’t stand. I make fun the owners sometimes.) But when I first heard about this, it did strike me as being almost comical, so I spent a day or two reflecting on it and trying to decide if I was for it or against it. I posted about it on social media and also to my coworkers at the library, because we’re an opinionated bunch if nothing else. Here are some of the collective remarks made.

Pros: 

Some people hate funeral homes and get panic attacks even thinking about going to a viewing or a funeral, so looking through a window at the person may be easier for them to handle. Some people are physically challenged and so this is a more comfortable option for them. Many people feel shy about expressing their grief publicly; I know I feel a lot more comfortable crying in my car than I do in a room full or people or in a public restroom. A lot of people are disturbed by the (real or imagined) smell of funeral homes and that can keep them from visitations. Viewing the body through the window may feel less real and confrontational than looking down at the body or even being in the same room with them, and so it may be a good option for people who really fear death.

Cons: 

One person said she could imagine a whole family heading to McDonald’s first and then eating fries and drinking shakes while looking at the body in the funeral home drive-thru. One person said if parking was more inconvenient than the fact that the person died, then maybe they shouldn’t go to the viewing at all. One friend said that they thought looking at a dead body was a weird tradition anyway and that looking at one through a window was even weirder.

What this reminded me of was the Victorian practice of photographing dead bodies, a historical quirk that I personally love. Many of the photos are beautiful and peaceful, and while I’ve seen a few that have really disturbed me, I find that many are artistic and certainly valuable for their historical detail. However, when the house was quarantined the photographer would have to stand outside and take the photo through the window of the house, and that gave me the creeps for some reason. It seemed voyeuristic and changed the whole dynamic, but I could see the need for it if the family had no other photo of that person.

Photo first seen in Sleeping Beauty: Memorial Photography in America by Stanley Burns. of the Burns Archive. Photo accessed from https://www.buzzfeed.com/leonoraepstein/haunting-post-mortem-photography?

I don’t know that this fills a specific need in the funeral industry, but I admire the creativity for sure and I certainly look forward to seeing if this catches on and and ends up in one of the Orlando funeral homes. I think that for years people have either chosen to attend a funeral or not – it’s been that simple. This seems to place some people into a gray area where they want to be there to support the family of the loved one- but don’t. They want that last look at their loved one- but not in person. I can’t say this with any judgement because everyone’s feelings toward death are different, but I’ll be really interested to see if this becomes a regular funeral practice.

The Back of the Hearse

Last weekend Shawn and I went to St. Augustine to celebrate our 1-year-of-dating anniversary. When we were planning the trip our conversation went something like this:

Shawn: Let’s go to St. Augustine to celebrate our anniversary!

Me: Yes, lets!

Shawn: Maybe we can take some tours that we’ve never taken before. What would you like to do?

Me: I’d like to take the ghost ride hearse tour.

Shawn: What else?

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In the back…

Me: Doesn’t matter.

We booked the Everdark Express with GhoSt Augustine and the waiting began. Thankfully we decided to do it on our first night there and I didn’t have to wait too long. When we arrived at the shop we found an interesting array of ghost-hunting equipment and a lot of fun tee shirts (Bigfoot on a milk carton was my favorite). The manager, Gina, came out and introduced herself and confirmed our reservation, and we chatted about their tours while we waited for our guide. She was fun and knowledgeable, and talked easily about things she had seen and experienced in her work. I was kind of jealous; the most exciting thing that happened to me recently was a guy who asked for the book Sybil to be sent to him “as soon as possible” because he planned to read it out loud to his family.

Yeah. Look that one up.

We were taking the tour with a family of four- mom, dad, their infant son, and their daughter who was about ten and a seriously brave girl. When the tour guide showed up promptly at 8 we were escorted out the back door to the already running ’92 Caddy hearse. The doors were wide open and waiting for us to enter, and it looked welcoming in it’s own morose way.

I was beside myself. I think I may have offered to drive but our guide, Ed, insisted. Shawn and I let the family have the middle seats and we clambered into the back. Ed shut the door behind us, letting us know that we would not be able to let ourselves out and smiling as he invited us to enjoy the ride. The engine gave a glorious rumble, and we were off.

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Theador and Cotton.

The back of that thing had gone through an interesting conversion, with carpet over what was left of the apparatus in the now floorboard and seats on 3 sides that made me feel a bit like I was sitting in a black hot-tub. They had thrown in a couple of black cushions for good measure, and it was pretty comfortable as we tooled around St. Augustine at no more than 8 miles an hour (which is all you can do in a regular vehicle anyway in the Old City). I’m pretty sure that the tourists gave the hearse a wide berth as it rolled sedately down the cobblestone streets.

Ed talked about city history including the Yellow Fever epidemics that tore through St. Augustine and caused the city get creative with how they dealt with bodies, and I loved it. By the time we got to our destination I’d learned quite a bit, especially since he was a historian and a good storyteller. We got out at a parking lot near Artillery Street where we were taken to a courtyard of what looked to be a private residence or maybe a business- only there was a headstone there. The stone was for Theodor Weber, who was buried with his dog Cotton in 1995. The stone was set back in ferns and other heavy greenery and was gorgeous. On first glance I would never have believed someone was buried there, the stone design was beautiful and was clearly made to look less like a headstone and more like a courtyard decoration.

We walked a bit to an antique shop where we were issued K-II meters and given instructions as to their use. I was kind of excited, I’d never tried ghost hunting, and while I had not formed an opinion about it, I will admit to having a love/hate relationship with the TV show Ghost Adventures. Love the places and the history. Hate Zak’s hair. Not sure about the ghosts and the equipment.

However, my personal feelings about spirits aside, we still had an interesting evening with the meters lighting up periodically, a crying infant who didn’t like it when a ghost showed up (according to the meters), and a flashlight that blinked, flickered, and wavered as we asked questions into the dark space and waited for a reply. Our tour ended with a trip to the National Cemetery and we were given advice on how to take the best possible ghost photos. I tried it, and on my third try I had a distinct blur on the screen where there had not been one in the previous photos. The next night I tried at another cemetery and got nothing, but I’ll keep trying at the different places I visit. Ed showed us some of his own photos and they were really intriguing.

Ghost?
Ghost? Raindrop? Dust?

I only had one moment of slight panic and it surprised me. When we got out of the hearse at the first stop the sun was going down and with the rain we’d had earlier it was getting dark. When the back door was opened for us the lights in the back of the hearse came on and I could suddenly imagine a casket resting there instead of seating. I jumped. It seemed like the purpose of the vehicle was suddenly very obvious because of those lights illuminating the interior. I already knew it had been previously used. Some of the newer models have such incredible lighting that they make me think of the flight deck on the Starship Enterprise. The people who design those lights should be working in funeral homes since I’m pretty sure they could make anything look good.

It was a fun tour- and the little scare at the end was my imagination working overtime. But… it wouldn’t be a good ghost tour without a little scare, would it?

 

**all opinions are my own and I was not compensated for this post.

Valentine’s Day and the Powder Blue Hearse

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The Huguenot Cemetery in St. Augustine, Florida.

St. Augustine has always been a city that for me, feels a lot like New Orleans. The living and the dead seem to be in very close proximity, and it’s obvious. Not only are there cemeteries all over the place, but there is also a feeling there that I only seem to sense in old cities with a lot of turbulent history. It’s one of my favorite places.

This year Shawn and I were going to visit a cemetery a little farther out of town, not the usual ones that the tourists always go to. (Myself included. I love them all.) On the way, as we usually do, we got lost. Not too bad, but we turned the wrong way twice and ended up circling around the same few blocks three times until we were able to find the right road. Neither of us had been in this part of the city before and I hate getting lost, period.

On the first pass we saw a crab shack on the left hand side of the street that used to be an old gas station, and was a work of art. The windows and all of the signage were hand painted, and Shawn, who used to be a corporate chef, absolutely loved it. If they’d been open at 9 o’clock in the morning I felt sure that we would have been eating crabs with our Starbuck’s coffee.

On the second pass around the block we looked to the right and I noticed a funeral parlor, also closed, that was painted an incredible shade of powder blue. The first thing I thought of were the sheets on the guest bed at my mother’s house- those sheets were almost the same exact shade as this establishment.

On the third pass- and also the one where we found the road we needed to take, I noticed that next to the funeral home was a carport, and underneath it were parked two hearses, one traditional old one in dignified black, and one in metallic powder blue to match the funeral home.

Yes. It matched.

It was because of this that I made Shawn go around the block a fourth time and pull into the parking lot so that I could stare in wonder at the blue hearse for a few minutes.

“Go ahead and take a picture of it. I know you’re dying to,” he said, laughing at me.

“We’re on private property and I’d rather not trespass,” I said dejectedly. Doing the right thing can really suck sometimes, and I could think of younger days when I was a hell of a lot braver and might have tried to get behind the wheel of the thing.

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When we go back- we’re taking the hearse tour!

Then we noticed that in the back of the funeral home by the chain link fence that marked off the property there was an old, white hearse as well, probably from the 1970’s. I was beside myself with anguish over not being able to get a picture with it.

That night as we walked to dinner we saw a big, black, boxy hearse parked on the street next to one of the St. Augustine ghost attractions. I practically ran to it, dragging Shawn along behind me and making sure no one was nearby so I could pose next to it.

It wasn’t powder blue, but it was still awesome. I think the next time I’m in St. Augustine I might call up that funeral home and ask to do an interview with them on their history. That place really did look incredible and it certainly stood out. Style- that’s what it had.