When most people see a hearse — an elongated vehicle traditionally used for carrying coffins — they get the shivers.
But the members of the Western Washington-based Anubis Hearse Club are not most people.
Instead of a frightening symbol of death, they see a passionate hobby, an opportunity for theatrical expression (and occasional mischief), and maybe, most of all, an emblem of friendship.
Ronda Connelly was the first one in the group to get a hearse.
“My dad found out he had mesothelioma,” Ronda said, while she and several other members of the club sat around a table at Putter’s in Bremerton. “He was getting compensation death benefit checks. ‘Sorry-we-killed-you money,’ was how he put it.”
Ronda’s father asked her to use that money to purchase an old hearse he had seen for sale from a friend.
“I’m like, ‘Oh, dear God, Dad, really?’” she said. The car was beat up, “a rusty piece of crap,” as she called it. But her father insisted.
“It’s got cancer. I’ve got cancer. We can fix the car,” he told her.
So they bought the hearse now known as Anaya, a 1975 Cadillac Superior. Ronda, her father, and their friends spent hours in the shop, restoring the engine and fixing up the car.
“Everybody loved my dad,” she said. “He just got a kick out of seeing us (in the hearse) in parades and having a good time.”
Ronda’s father passed away in 2012. He was carried to the cemetery in the very hearse he helped to restore.
After Anaya, Ronda bought a second hearse. Then her friends followed suit.
Shelby Mox and Jeremy Tyler bought Ravin, a 1980 Cadillac Fleetwood.
Ed Pitelli, Ronda’s boyfriend, purchased a bright yellow 1979 Ford Granada that goes by several names: The Little Girl, The Minion, The Banana Hearse.
Stephen and Danielle Prange bought The Queen, a 1994 Lincoln Town Car Executive Series.
Bryan Todd purchased Jezebel, a 1979 Cadillac Miller Meteor Hearse. “I had been riding with them for three or four years in parades and doing haunted houses and car shows. I always really wanted one,” Bryan said.
Edgar and Heidi Draper, two of the most recent additions to the group, bought Angelique, a 1995 Cadillac Fleetwood Superior Crown Sovereign. “We kind of thought, okay, now we have a hearse. What do we do?” Heidi said. “So we found like-minded people.”
“We all just bought hearses because we’re friends. We’re just a group of friends who bought matching cars,” Ronda explained.
Surprisingly, those matching cars have nothing to do with the members’ real-life careers. No one in the group is a mortician. No one works at a cemetery, although Ronda lives across the street from one.
Bryan is an estimator for a marble and granite company. Ronda is a home healthcare provider. Stephen is retired navy and going back to school for technical design. Heidi works in municipal finance. And Shelby is a visitation supervisor for foster kids.
Ronda said she does use Anaya for ceremonial purposes. “I have my reverend’s license,” she said. “I can marry you or bury you. Just pick one.” She married Bryan and his wife, and Stephen and Danielle.
But other than the occasional side hustle or somber trip to the cemetery, the hearses are strictly for fun.
Anubis members (the name refers to the Egyptian god associated with the dead) participate in traditional car-enthusiast events — parades, car shows, photo shoots, birthday parties, and charity events. They also participate in some other, more non-traditional events like Seattle’s Crypticon, or “trunk or treats”— during which kids dress up in Halloween costumes and collect candy from the back of the hearses.
As you might expect, the members of the Anubis Hearse Club adore Halloween.
“We don’t stick out this time of year.” Ronda said. “We seem normal.”
“All of a sudden most of us have quit being the creepy friend who owns a hearse. Now, we’re the cool friend that owns a hearse.” Ed Draper added.
Hearses come in handy for other things, too. The spacious rear of the car makes for both a perfect camper bed and a great moving van.
“I can haul three bales of hay at a hundred pounds apiece and 20 yards of dirt and 12-foot boards with the doors shut,” Ronda said. “It’s the biggest, best truck with a cover on it I’ve ever had.”
They are also good for freaking people out, the group explained, on purpose or by accident.
For example, Danielle said her son was riding in the back of their hearse, The Queen, one day when they stopped to fill up on gas at a truck stop. Her son exited the hearse from the back door.
“It went silent. You could have heard a pin drop in that place,” Danielle said, laughing.
“It’s not every day at a truck stop you see the back door of a hearse fly open, and somebody alive comes out,” Stephen added.
Sometimes the shenanigans are more deliberate.
“I have a decoration called the Peeper,” Bryan said. It’s a device consisting of a man’s head and hand that he sets up to tap on the window of his hearse at other drivers.
Some people find these pranks, and the cars themselves, as humorous as the Anubis members do. Others feel differently.
“Sometimes when you drive down the road, people won’t pull up close behind you. They don’t want to be next to you,” Heidi explained.
“We do get extreme religious people that yell at us, that we’re evil and the devil,” Bryan said.
Several people said they had been blessed on multiple occasions.
But one demographic loves the Anubis hearses with nearly unfailing reliability: children.
Part of that is because kids don’t have the same biases about death that adults do, the group said. But the other reason is that the Anubis members purposefully try to make their cars fun. They fill them with candy, stuffed animals, and other toys. They let anyone climb around inside and take photos.
“We don’t want (kids) to be scared of death,” Bryan said.
No matter how many candy bars or stuffed animals line the walls of these hearses, though, the theme of death is still very present. And the Anubis group is just fine with that. In some ways, owning hearses seems to have helped them to embrace their own inevitable demise.
“Death is a part of life. Without one you don’t have the other,” Ed said.
“Why should we be afraid of death?” echoed Jeremy Tyler, Shelby’s husband. “Why not have a little fun with it? … Why not look at it with a little humor?”
Like other car-lovers, the Anubis members each have a dream car (or three). Their cream of the crop. Their Cadillac of Cadillac hearses.
For Bryan, it’s a horse-drawn hearse. “You put horses in front of it and you ride it like an old carriage. It’s got glass and it’s got the old hanging lanterns on the side,” he said.
Shelby dreams of a more modern design. “I would actually like to go newer,” she said. “I mean, I love the old ones, but I saw a 2006 Bentley that was a million-dollar car.” (According to the group, hearses generally run between $2,000 and $10,000, but there are some that cost a lot more.)
Ronda has more old-school goals. “I’m trying to trade my ’65 T-bird convertible for a 1940 la Salle Carved Side Hearse,” she said, then added, “I’d like an old gangster bubble fender one. You know, those big old, mobster-looking, roll up blowing smoke, just scare-the-crap-out-of-you death racers.”
Ed has his eye on three different hearses. “One is the 1961 Superior Barrel Back. The other one would be a 1969 Superior, simply because I love the front end with the stacked headlights. And then I would say a 1973 Superior Tri-loader, with full air suspension. If I could have three hearses, those would be the three hearses. And the ’73 Tri-loader is awesome because what they did was they had four wheel airbags…”
“Ed,” his wife interrupted.
“Oh, I’m sorry.” Ed said.
No apologies necessary.
If there’s a moral to this story, it should probably be to never judge a car by its boxy, coffin-like shape. That, and, in the words of the Anubis Hearse Club motto, to “never let your first ride be your last.”
See the Anubis Hearse Club cars during the hearse procession in Bucoda this Saturday, Oct. 13, at 11 a.m.