Making the "last ride" memorable

Date Published: 
January, 2005
Original Author: 
Kelly Dwyer
Michigan Memorial Park, Flat Rock, MI
Original Publication: 
ICFM Magazine, January 2005

Personalization can go beyond the funeral service.
Kelly and Dan Dwyer are expanding the options for getting from the funeral home to the cemetery, and having fun doing it.

My husband, Dan, and I started Michigan Specialty Funeral Carriages in December 2003 with one vehicle. During our Thanksgiving vacation, we found a circa 1890 horse-drawn hearse and bought it on the spot from Arthur Brewer, a retired funeral director in Hadley, New York. Dan rented a large truck, loaded the hearse into it and drove the 650 miles back to Michigan, with me and our daughters following in our van.

On December 8, we used the carriage for the first time, for my grandfather's funeral.  Since then, we've used the carriage an average of three times a month. There is a mile-long private road connecting Dan's funeral home, Michigan Memorial Funeral Home, and Michigan Memorial Park, which my family runs. (I'm a fourth-generation cemeterian; Dan is a fourth-generation funeral director.) The private road makes it safe for family members and guests to walk behind the carriage for the trip from the funeral home to the cemetery, and in most cases that is what they choose to do.

From horse power to horsepower
In January 2004 we added our second specialty vehicle, the Tombstone hearse. One of the most unusual pieces of funeral equipment we have ever seen, it's a customized Harley Davidson Road King motorcycle with a hand-built casket coach attached. When we first saw it at the NFDA convention in 2003, Dan and I looked at each other and said "we've gotta buy that!"—and we did.

Jack Feather, the builder and owner of Tombstone Hearse Co., had one franchise agreement with him, so we copied it and worked out our deal right there on the convention floor. (Our attorney, Frank Rosenacker, was on the floor at the same time, which made it very convenient).

We didn't have any goals for getting a return on the money we spent on the motorcycle. We figured that if all it did was pay for itself that was OK—owning it was going to be a lot of fun. (It is!)

Our first motorcycle funeral was on February 4, 2004 (10 degrees brrrrrr.... ), for a man who hadn't even owned a motorcycle. His family thought the Tombstone hearse was "cool."

We are now using the Tombstone bike about once a week, between funerals, parades and exhibitions. As of this writing, only 25 percent of the funerals where we use the motorcycle are at Michigan Memorial Funeral Home.

In 75 percent of the cases, Michigan Specialty Funeral Carriage has gotten a call to serve a family using another funeral home. We have served families at funeral homes all over Michigan and as far away as Indianapolis, Indiana, and Cincinnati, Ohio.

In the first six months we had the bike, three families chose Michigan Memorial Funeral Home specifically because of the motorcycle. Having the motorcycle also has been responsible for more than two dozen preneed arrangements and has given all of our businesses added name recognition.

Recently an 85-year-old woman came in to arrange her funeral and included use of the Tombstone hearse in her arrangements. She said, "My friends will get a kick out of this!"

Despite our success with the motorcycle hearse so far, we feel we could be doing even more business with it. Our biggest problem has been getting the word out about our service. Our competitors tend not to mention it to their families who are motorcycle enthusiasts. Most of our calls for service come from the families directly.

We market through direct mailings to funeral homes and motorcycle clubs, as well as at Dan's funeral home, my cemetery and Dan's casket store.

We've found, though, that the best advertisement (not to mention the most fun) is just going for a ride. We can drive it to a gas station, supermarket parking lot or anywhere, really, and it attracts its own crowd.

The Tombstone hearse is also the most photographed (and possibly the most remembered) part of every funeral for which it's used. We've never seen anything quite like the reaction it gets.

Michigan Specialty Carriage Co. was profitable in its first month, and business continues to improve. Our service volume is going up every month.

Setting up this company has been one of the most enjoyable things Dan and I have done, and we're not finished. We're still looking for "new and different" vehicles to add to our fleet.