Michael Parks chuckles at the idea of a self-driving hearse. “As suspicious as people are about a hearse, it would send them over the top to see a hearse go by without a driver,” says Parks, president of Parks Superior Sales, a hearse and funeral limousine dealership in Somers, Conn. As third-generation owner of the only remaining hearse supplier in New England, Parks has seen hearses change over the years – strobe lights, flags on the hood, extra side windows for casket viewing are popular features now – but self-driving hearses remain a futuristic notion. Still, he says, with more and more scofflaws weaving in and out of funeral processions, an autonomous funeral vehicle would possibly eliminate some driver error.
In a declining industry hurt by consolidation of funeral homes and the popularity of cremation, Parks is always open to innovation. While his salesman still travels door to door – usually showing up in a new Cadillac hearse for buyer inspiration – Parks uses Internet auctions for global sales, and has turned Parks Superior Sales into a full-service dealership with service, leasing, body shop, and parts. The vehicles he carries come in colors like green, gold, red, black cherry, and champagne, and can be outfitted with urn carriers for cremations, making them more versatile. The most expensive hearse is a $125,000 Cadillac that can be customized with options like a Formica casket floor, leatherette casket compartment trim, stainless steel umbrella storage, chrome landau bows, skylight, and formal swag drapery.
“A hearse is a rolling advertisement for a funeral home,” says Parks, 53, who spoke to the Globe about his, uh, grave interest in hearses.
“If I’m at a cocktail party and I mention what I do for a living, the conversation usually starts with a litany of bad jokes. ‘I’m dying to get into one of your cars.’ ‘Don’t stiff me.’ ‘Your pricing is killing me.’ It goes on and on.
“Most people are intrigued that we can make a living out of selling hearses. At the National Funeral Directors Association Convention, held three months ago in Boston, the showstopper was a hearse with an integrated urn enclave, visible through rear and side windows. This model celebrates the life of a loved one for all to see, in a very dignified way. Because the challenge to hearse manufacturers now – we call them coach builders – is how a cremated body can have the same respect and symbol as a casketed body.
“Most funeral homes have one hearse, and they turn them over every four to six years. There are 21,000 funeral homes in North America. Out of those, probably 13,000 or 14,000 actually buy and own a hearse; others lease and some rent from a funeral livery. We sell between 500 and 600 hundred funeral cars a year. Our main business is pre-owned funeral cars.
“Like many family businesses back in the late ’40s, Parks Superior started by chance. My grandfather owned a couple of gas stations in West Springfield, where he did service work on some ambulances. At that time, ambulances were built on a Cadillac chassis, and made by the same companies who manufactured hearses. One thing led to another and Parks Superior Sales opened, selling both hearses and ambulances. I grew up with the business in my backyard, and if I needed a ride from school my dad often picked me up in a hearse. My head would drop down — ‘Oh geez, thanks a lot, dad, for that.’ On my first date with my wife, I picked her up in a hearse. It was second nature to me by then and a lot easier than going back home to swap cars.
“When I got out of high school, I came to work for my father and decided to drop the ambulance part of the business, which I sometimes regret now because they have a higher profit level and better selling territory protection. But we do a brisk business selling hearses in 13 different states, all the way down the east coast to Virginia and beyond. I believe a hearse is not just transportation, but a valuable tradition and symbol of a life that has passed.
“I remember two decades ago when my grandmother died and was cremated. We waited by the gravesite on a cold January day and a dirty old van pulled up. It felt like a letdown. Instead, a shiny black hearse pulling out of a cemetery adds a lot of respect. And I take that very seriously.”
Cindy Atoji Keene can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.