The Hearse Next Door

When we first moved into our little house, I immediately fell in love with the gorgeous canopy tree-lined street. Being an established neighborhood, many of the small houses and gardens still had that old-fashioned charm. A week after moving in, a delightfully odd thing happened. A huge porcupine went waddling down the sidewalk and headed towards the ravine. I was so amused to see such a creature strolling past our home. The porcupine was not the only mysterious visitor that we had. A few days later while looking out the window, I noticed a hearse parked out front along the street.  Had someone died? Perhaps there was a neighbor who worked for the coronary office? My curiosity led me to investigate further into the elegant smokey grey catafalque.

I discovered no one had died that day on our street, and the hearse didn’t belong to anyone working for the coronary office. The car belonged to my next-door neighbors’ older brother named Ray. When I asked him why he had a hearse, Ray said, “because I like it”. “Fair enough,” I replied. I later asked Ray if he would like to do an interview with me to talk about his hearse. He seemed pretty happy and agreed to schedule a meeting.

On September 24th, early in the afternoon, I met Ray outside of my house for the interview. When I reached the car, he asked if I wanted to go for a ride and visit the graveyard to get some good photos. I  was both nervous and excited to see what this interview would bring. Here I was getting into a death car with a stranger and driving off into the unknown. With reluctant enthusiasm, I got into the car and we drove away.  

Me: What year and make is this car?   

Ray: 1989. Buick

Is this the original interior?

Ray: Yup.

It is in really good condition. And it still has a radio. {It’s awkward} I really like the colour. It’s like a smokey blue. Really wide seats and super comfortable. Yup, excellent condition.  How long have you had the car?

Ray: About three years. 

Were you looking to buy a hearse?

Ray: Yup. It was just there parked at the side of the road one day. 

And you saw it and just said, oh my god, I just have to have that car? (Laughs). What time of the year was that?

Ray: Summer. 

So why were you looking for a hearse? Let’s be honest, not everybody would buy a hearse. What would inspire you to want to purchase this kind of car? 

Ray: I always wanted one. I wanted one for a long time. And it was there one day and I got it. 

Can I ask how much it cost?

Ray: $5000.

Oh wow, not what I was expecting. That is a really good deal. I’m really surprised that it wasn’t a lot more. The interior is in excellent condition. 

Ray: Yup

Do you know the history of this car? 

Ray:  It’s from a funeral home in a small town, here in Alberta. Can’t remember the name. 

Did you meet the guy who used to drive it?

Ray: Ya, I got it from the guy who had it before me. He worked at the funeral home. He dropped it off at my house.

I wonder why they were selling it.

Ray: Probably just so they could get a newer one. 

When do you like to use the car? Do you have certain days that you take it out for a drive?

Ray: On my days off. 

Do you use it to move things?

Ray: Ya one day I was hauling lumber.

Do you travel anywhere with it?

Ray: No.

How about car shows for a hearse? Are there any clubs?

Ray: There is a club in Edmonton. 

Do you go to the club meetings or shows.

Ray: Nope. No time. 

Have you ever had any funny experiences while you were driving the car? 

Ray: Oh ya!

Can you tell me about them?

Ray: One person saluted one day. People like it. 

Have you ever come across someone who didn’t?

Ray: This old lady says “what are you driving that for?” 

(Laughs)

I think sometimes people are afraid of anything that is associated with death. It’s like a taboo topic. 

Ray: Ya the old lady who’s my neighbor. She said not to park that thing in front of her house. She said to park anything else, but not that one there. 

Is she still your neighbor?

Ray: Nope, she died already. She was eighty-nine years old. 

(Laughs) “Oh” 

Do any of your friends like to go for rides with you in the car?

Ray: Not too many. Nope.

(Laughs). Ya, I guess a lot of people would be intimidated to go in a hearse. I mean, after all, it is a death carriage. 

Ray: You’re the second one. 

Oh, well thank you then. I feel privileged. That’s great.  So when you go by graveyards do you think everybody will just assume there is a body in the back. 

Ray: No

(Laughs) I would, I would assume it. I’d be like, oh there goes a body, someone died. You don’t think that way?

Ray: No

I have to ask, do you think your car might be haunted? 

Ray: It’s not haunted.

Is that because you don’t believe in ghosts, or because you just don’t think that this car is haunted?

Ray: Nope, it’s not haunted. Ya, I believe in them, but it’s not haunted yet.

(Laughs) It will be you, you’ll be the one haunting it one day. Laughs.  (Note: I later lost my pen and blamed it on his ghost.)If I find a ghost in one of the photos that I took would you want to see it?

Ray: Sure!

Wtf. There’s a tombstone in the back of your car. Who’s is it?

Ray: I don’t know? Can you read french?

Did the tombstone come with the car? How did you get it?

Ray: I got it at the antique mall. 

Wow, it’s beautiful. It’s like old hand-carved wood. And you just keep it in the back of the car?

Ray: Yup, that’s the place for it.

But I find it strange that a person could buy a used or personalized tombstone at a farmers market. 

Ray: It was rescued. It’s from a graveyard in Ontario somewhere.

Interesting.

Ray: It’s a good place for it, right here in this car.

Yes, it is. And it’s good it is with someone who is taking care of it, and respecting it.  

Ray: I want to get a coffin and put it in the back.

wtf. A coffin? What kind of a coffin do you want to put in the back? A metal one? A wooden one?

Ray: A real one. A wooden one.

Fancy or plain?

Ray: Fancy

So you have put some thought into this. Would you ever sleep in it?

Ray: Yup. Ya, why not.

Go to the store, open it up, pull out the coffin, and someone comes out. (Laughs).

(Laughs). That’s funny!

Ray: What are they going to say, no you can’t do that.

And so you’ll be buried in this coffin?

Ray: Nope. Just burn it up. 

Cremated then. Ya, it’s expensive to buy burial land. Lots of people are going that route now. 

Do you have any intentions of selling the car?

Ray: Nope.

This may sound morbid, but when you pass on, do you want to be brought to your resting place in this car?

Ray Smiles: Maybe.

It might be something you will want to put in your will at some point.
Are there any other cars that you would like to collect? 

Ray: Nope. Already have ten cars.

Oh, you have ten other cars? Is there any other hearse? What kind of cars?

Ray: Nope. Older cars.

What would you like to tell others who are interested in buying a hearse?

Ray: Get an original and keep it original. I know a guy that’s got one and he put a fucking skeleton on the front. It ruins them. It’s disrespectful. Let it stay the way it was. 

So then, your passion for this vehicle is that it stays in its original form because that is the beauty of the car itself?

Ray nods his head yes.

Well, that was a great interview Ray. Thank you so much for your time driving around and your enthusiasm at the photoshoot. 

Ray Smiles: Welcome. 

And we are back home safe and sound, in one piece, still breathing. (Laughs)

End

Halfway through the interview, we stopped off at the Tim Horton’s on Whyte Ave to grab a couple of coffees. After that, we took a drive downtown and Ray showed me where all the new buildings were going up and where the new Museum was. It was clear that Ray was really enjoying himself driving around in his hearse. He had mentioned that he puts it away for the winter and there wasn’t much time left to enjoy it this year. Therefore, the interview was a great convenience for him to go for a long drive in his favorite car. The one hour interview turned into four hours of meandering through the city and photo opportunities in the Mount Royal Cemetery. I was grateful for the time he shared; Ray was pretty quiet at first, but as time went on, he seemed to feel more comfortable and began to share information. This was pivotal for the interview.

I did notice as we were driving around that some of the people who were standing on the sidewalks would glance over at us. From my observations, people do seem to form expressions of curiosity when they see a hearse driving by.  Some smiled understanding that it was a collector’s car out on a cruise, while others tried to stretch their eyes into another direction. It is understandable that we all deal with the concept of death differently. A hearse is a symbol of death and can easily trigger fears or reactions. 

As for the car being haunted, I can tell you that I did not feel any presence in the car. Not even from the tombstone. There were two photos that I took which looked like a person’s face in the small window, but it was also very possible that the lighting and reflections could have created it. And I must admit, it’s kind of weird driving around in a hearse with a stranger. (Awkward laughs) As a sensitive person, I chose to stay grounded and focused on the questions and answers, as well as photography. I thought it went decently well. 



My First Urn

 My love for ceramics began when I was seventeen years old. I had just moved back in with my mother and stepfather. She was already taking ceramic classes and I really loved the work she was doing. To create mother and daughter quality time, I joined my mom and went to the lessons with her. 

 At that time, we were living in the quaint little town of Port Hope, Ontario. The ceramic classes were in the neighbouring town of Cobourg. I loved going to Cobourg because it was where I spent much of my youth growing up. It is a beautiful town with a popular beachfront overlooking Lake Ontario. 

 The ceramic shop was tucked away on a side street. I enjoyed opening the door, causing the little bells to chime and announce our arrival. Everyone at the tables would pause for a slight moment to look over at the door and have a curious peek as to who had just arrived. The workshop was usually super warm from the lingering heat of the kiln. One area of the shop was designated for all the greenware. The rows of shelves displayed all kinds of greenware ornaments, statues and dishes. There were plenty of traditional garden gnomes carrying water cans, pushing wheelbarrows, or were smelling flowers. Holiday decor of Christmas trees, Halloween pumpkins and Thanksgiving serving dishes were always in stock. I began my craft of ceramics by practicing on a skull mug, an ashtray, and Care Bears. 

 For two years, my mother and I enjoyed our weekly classes together. I was quite surprised and impressed with my mother’s artistic skills. It seemed I’d inherited some of her passion for the art. The last piece I did at that time was what I called ‘my urn’. It wasn’t exactly an ‘actual urn’, but rather a decanter. The clay imprint was of a First Nations Chief standing in prayer on a cliff in the mountains. I used the decanter itself to represent the Great Spirit. Therefore, the majestic scene of the chief and the mountains became the belly of the Great Spirit. 

1985. My first urn.

 In hindsight, it makes a lot of sense that I would create such a thing. From a young age, I’ve sensed the power of nature and the presence of the elements. As a child, I was fascinated by the spirituality of the natural world. The urn idea was most likely influenced by my father. By the time I was nineteen, he and my stepmother were then working in the business of body removal services. It was through their work that I began to see all aspects of the death industry in an entirely new light. I was not permitted to go to the scene of a death, but I did have the opportunity to go to the hospital cold storage units or the crematorium. Due to my spiritual background and ability to perceive spirits, I began to see the importance of beauty and uniqueness in a casket or urn. For the next twenty years, I felt the calling of creating these urns, but for unclear reasons or excuses I could come up with, I dismissed the calling. 

  I no longer dismiss the calling. 

We’ve all read the stories of people being buried in Cadillacs, etc., but for the average person, the cost of such a thing would be prohibitive. Imagine if your husband loved Cadillacs that much, and you were able to provide an urn which looked like a Cadillac or even just a logo. We could provide an opportunity for them to bury or contain the ashes of their loved one while acknowledging the uniqueness of their life and personality, without taking every cent they have. I believe it is important to provide a service that not only reflects the uniqueness of our clients, but also the values from which this company was created, thus: personal expression, respect and compassion.

Woodmen of the World

One of my fondest childhood memories is connected to my old elementary school:  St. Mary’s, a little school tucked away in the hamlet of Grafton, Ontario. It wasn’t the school itself which made such an impression on me, it was the adjacent cemetery on the grounds of St. Mary’s Catholic Church.

Photo from the website of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary Church. aka St. Mary’s.

Sometimes at recess, I would meander alone through the graveyard. The other kids kept far away from the area in fear of gruesome discoveries or ghosts. For me, it felt sacred and quiet. There was that feeling of not being alone, but you felt you were safe. From a child’s perspective, one good scream and you knew the recess teacher could run a lot faster than some old ghost could. Besides, it was always in the middle of the day, and in the middle of the day I was a pretty brave kid. 

The headstones, in their tidy rows, stood in mute assembly. Some were grand monuments while others were as simple as a flat slate with a name and date. Older headstones were fascinating. They told a lot about a person: their name, date of birth, date of death, and who their loved ones were. There were details describing whether they’d been someone’s beloved wife or husband, daughter or son. Some graves flourished with flowers and regular care, while other graves faded in solitary melancholy. 

As an adult, I have a fondness yet for exploring graveyards, and picking up clues to those who have found eternal rest within their gates. Just this spring I visited the Mount Pleasant Cemetery and was reminded of the unique stories each of the tombstones told. There was one in particular that stood out that day. It was a tombstone that was unique and mysterious. The headstone was created to look like a carved tree stump. The craftsmen created a flat surface for the declarations by forming a parchment on the tree stone.  They also added a crest that declares the person who was buried there was a member of the Woodmen of the World fraternity. The monument was decorated with the Latin inscription “dum tacet clamat” which means, “Though silent, he speaks”.

Woodman of the World headstone at the Mount Pleasant Cemetery.

When I got home, I looked on the internet to see who or what organization was connected to this “Woodmen of the World”. It turns out that the group was created in the USA by a man named Joseph Cullen Root in 1890. Root’s vision was to create a fraternal benefit society that would “minister to the afflicted to relieve distress; to cast a sheltering arm about the defenseless living ; to encourage broad charitable views…” 

A lot has changed since the early 1900s, but the Woodmen of the World still exist today.  The executive vice president Wayne Graham said, “The objects of Woodcraft have always exemplified love, honour and remembrance. Fraternalists are concerned with helping others, promoting patriotism and civic responsibility, and providing financial protection for their families”.   Although the Woodmen of the World is still in operation as a fraternity and insurance company, they do not create headstones for all their members.

I have to say it…I am shocked at how large this fraternity was and still is, and how much influence it has in the United States.  Woodmenlife is a big name in the states. 

So, I decided that having come across an old Woodmen of the World headstone here in Edmonton was a pretty cool thing. Especially since they are most likely to be found in parts of the USA and eastern Canada. I will definitely be looking for more of them on my travels. Who knows, maybe there was one back in that little graveyard behind the St. Mary’s School & Church in Grafton. When I looked at the area on Google Maps, I could see that the school had been either rebuilt or had extensive renovations. The church and graveyard looked very much the same. It’s such a beautiful part of Ontario.  I hope one day I can go back and revisit that old graveyard, and all within which had inspired me. 

If you who would like to know more details and stories about the Woodmen of the World, I invite you to check out these links:

Woodmenlife: history bio

A Grave Interest Blog on Woodmen Graves

The Mysterious Woodmen

Woodman of the World 

Wikipedia

Greetings

Have you ever reached that moment when you realized it was time to stop avoiding your calling? Did you think your ideas seemed ludicrous? Maybe you thought the idea was “too big” and you’d never be successful. Perhaps someone close to you talked you out of taking those first steps towards what had been calling you forward. Or it could be that you just weren’t quite ready yet to make a long term commitment. For me, it was all of those things. For so many years I traced the outskirts of my calling with ‘what ifs’. Then the day came when I asked myself, ‘what if’ I actually fail because I never truly began. That thought, that idea was more disturbing than any of the things that had originally held me back.

Therefore, Welcome to my new endeavor as I embrace my calling. My company is Forget~Me~Not Studios and the blog Urning a Living is my platform for sharing this journey. As I create unique, personalized urns, I will also be embracing my love for travel, writing, and exploring how different cultures use their own traditions to celebrate their dead, and bring comfort to those left behind.

And so it begins…..