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Clark: Ride was a classic, and didn’t feel like a rehearsal

Sun., May 5, 2013, midnight

Doug Clark and Dennis Murphy, director of Heritage Funeral Home, take a ride to Jacob’s Java in Murphy’s 1939 Packard Henney hearse on Friday near downtown Spokane. (Dan Pelle)
Doug Clark and Dennis Murphy, director of Heritage Funeral Home, take a ride to Jacob’s Java in Murphy’s 1939 Packard Henney hearse on Friday near downtown Spokane. (Dan Pelle)

The 1939 hearse, black like my soul and only slightly smaller than the Queen Mary, came rolling east on Riverside and moored in front of the newspaper to pick me up.

A man my age could get the willies seeing such a death wagon coming for him.

But the dark-suited man behind the wheel invited me to take a seat up front.

Whew. The time for worry is when somebody just slides you into the back without asking your opinion on the matter.

“Better to be seen than viewed,” remarked Dennis Murphy as he gassed the beast and we slowly chugged out into traffic.

“Top speed of 40,” he added.

This undertaker kills me.

Murphy, 64, is the president of Heritage Funeral Home, 508 N. Government Way, to be precise.

Now, I’ve rubbed elbows with a number of funeral directors over the years. Most of them have this way of looking at you that makes you feel like they’re measuring you for a box.

Of course, I get that a lot from cops and council members, too.

Murphy’s a different sort of cat.

I once referred to Murphy respectfully as the P.T. Barnum of the burial biz because of the way he applies upbeat marketing methods to his traditionally dour-and-sour line of work.

Take his Memorial Day weekend extravaganzas, for example.

In the last dozen years, Murphy has drawn thousands of spectators to Heritage by showcasing replica caskets of the ones inhabited by famous dead, like Lincoln, Bing Crosby and Elvis.

Some years the themes are more generalized, like his tribute to America’s long-gone cowboy heroes or a look at the Titanic disaster.

This year, May 25-27, Murphy has decided to honor our military. He’s asking the public to bring photographs of veterans alive or dead to be placed on a Heritage “Wall of Honor.”

A funeral home as entertainment destination – go figure.

There’s always something a little over the top going on in Murphy’s world, and his offer to give me a Friday cruise in his hearse was just too intriguing to resist.

Spokane, after all, is a classic car kind of town.

Most everybody around here seems to have a vintage ride or backyard rust-bucket waiting for rebirth.

This, however, is the first automotive dream I’ve encountered that came with a coffin-carrier.

But what style.

In their day, the Packard Henney hearse was the platinum standard of the embalming arts. They were a must for any mobster’s sendoff, along with those giant floral wreaths in the shape of, say, a horseshoe.

Murphy’s ’39 has been restored to its stunning original glory thanks to a 10-year effort by Tim Hein of Hein’s Hot Rods in Spokane. The project was finished last summer.

Being an incurable snoop, I had to ask what such a ground-up restoration of a rare hearse would cost.

Everything has been re-chromed. The paint job is spectacular. All missing parts were recreated.

Then there’s the plush, deep-blue velour interior. Custom privacy drapes hang over the windows like soft waves.

No wonder the hearse, which for a price is available to serve in its original capacity, won “best in show” in a car show.

But Murphy was a locked vault regarding economics.

“I’m afraid to add it up,” is all he’d say.

Whatever it cost, this baby was done right. The behemoth coach rolled over the Spokane potholes without so much as a creak.

Murphy, however, was in constant motion, working the clutch and the three-speed column shift. “It’s a busy car,” he said.

I felt a little guilty talking my driver into taking me through Jacob’s Java drive-thru for a cuppa Joe.

I mean, one wrong move and this tank might wipe out the Paulsen Building.

Murphy said he bought his hearse in Pennsylvania for 900 bucks. It was in such rough shape that the owner promised to give him a full refund if the vehicle was ever restored.

“And he did,” Murphy said.

Although this is one fabulous machine, I would trade the flip-up ashtray for a radio. Apparently whoever ordered this back in the day didn’t think listening to music was a priority for passengers.

According to Murphy, the hearse was probably in service ferrying the dead well into the 1960s.

Do the math. I’m just glad to be one of the few lucky stiffs who got to enjoy the ride in the upright position.

Columnist Doug Clark can be reached at (509) 459-5432

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