New Brunswick

Spinning in her grave: Rothesay woman's ride is to die for

If “attention-grabbing” is a quality you want in a vehicle, Hannah Fleet’s is hard to beat. From uncomfortable glances, to double-takes, to pulling over to the side of the road, Fleet has seen it all in her first car: a 1994 Cadillac hearse.

Hannah Fleet loves her 1994 Cadillac hearse - the neighbours complaining to the town, not so much

A ride to die for

5 years ago
A Rothesay woman drives a hearse to carry around her photography equipment. 0:45

If "attention-grabbing" is a quality you want in a vehicle, Hannah Fleet's is hard to beat.

From uncomfortable glances, to double-takes, to pulling over to the side of the road, Fleet has seen it all in her first car: a 1994 Cadillac hearse she's owned since October 2016.

"Sometimes you'll get a thumbs up," said the 25-year-old.

"Or sometimes a guy will take his hat off. People cross themselves. Sometimes people slow down almost to a stop because they think it's part of a procession. There's a lot of staring."

Fleet, 25, is a photographer and visual artist, who finds the hearse ideal for hauling photography gear. (Julia Wright / CBC)

Fleet found the hearse for sale on Kijiji by a private seller in Salisbury. It originally belonged to Rooney Funeral Home, established in Alberton, P.E.I., in 1955.

The seller was, appropriately, named Harold.

"I feel like she had to be named Maude," said Fleet, a fan of the 1971 film Harold and Maude, in which the main character drives two hearses.

Having been used mainly for short, gentle drives, the car was in great shape.

She got it for $2,000.

"They don't sell for much, even in pristine condition," she said. "Most people don't want to drive hearses."

Weird features

Fleet has kept the 1994 Cadillac's original features, including the rollers used to slide in a casket. (Julia Wright / CBC)

Fleet has laid a Persian rug in the back of the hearse, which contains a fold-out laminate table and rollers used by funeral home employees to slide the casket in.

"I wanted it to look a little more homey back there and a little less creepy," she said.

"It has these strange fake windows with ruched brocade fabric and chrome wreaths."

A Persian carpet in the back makes the vehicle look 'a little more homey back there and a little less creepy,' Fleet says. (Julia Wright / CBC)

"There's track lighting along the top of the fake windows where the wreaths are. Not sure of the purpose of that. Ambience for the person back there, I guess?"

Despite its interesting details, the hearse has needed a bit of work, and it "did have a bit of a musty smell when I first got it," she said.

The length — at 6.7 metres, a little longer than an average pickup truck — and lower ground clearance have also taken getting used to.

The hearse has some weird features, such as fake windows with ruched curtains, and chrome wreaths illuminated by track lighting. (Julia Wright / CBC)

But even in winter, "it's quite reliable. Even in –20 C, it's always started the first time. But it's a very low car to the ground. Good thing it has rear-wheel drive."

Reliable or not, "I've had a few people tell me they would never get in my car," Fleet said. "They'd rather walk home."

Neighbours dead against

Nor do all the neighbours appreciate Maude.

Fleet usually parks on Rothesay Road, since the driveway of her family's house — a converted church, formerly St. James the Less — gets icy, and the vehicle is tricky to back out.

"It's been a problem for some people," she said.

"My neighbour got a phone call. Some people have made complaints. I'm not really sure what their problem is with it, but I assume it's something to do with the mortality that a hearse makes you think of."

John Jarvie, the town manager in Rothesay, said there have been calls about the vehicle.

"It's unusual to see a hearse, other than at a funeral home or at a funeral," he said. "When one is parked on the road, it raises questions."

The hearse even came up at at the Feb. 13 meeting of Rothesay council, Jarvie said.

"A comment was made that it was unusual."

But while some of the neighbours might not like it, there's no law against driving the hearse or parking it on the side of the road, provided it's inspected, not blocking traffic and in compliance with other traffic laws.

"I'm not aware of any bylaws that would prohibit the parking of the hearse simply because people find it off-putting," Jarvie said. "People have unusual tastes, or drive unusual vehicles, but there's no law against it."

Six Feet Under style

Fleet's far from the first to use a funeral coach as a daily driver.

Neil Young and his band used a hearse, nicknamed Mort, to cart gear around Winnipeg gigs. (Mort later inspired the song Long May You Run.) Sam the Sham, singer for '60s rock outfit the Pharaohs, also gigged in a 1952 Packard funeral coach.

Claire Fisher of the HBO funeral-home family drama Six Feet Under was depicted bombing around L.A. in a lime-green 1971 Cadillac model.

For Fleet, it's a practical choice, as well as a fashion statement.

"I'm an artist, and that's part of the reason I decided to get this car," said Fleet, who plans to hold onto it at least until she leaves to pursue a master of fine arts at Nova Scotia College of Art and Design.

"I wanted something large that can carry heavy loads of photography and video equipment. This seemed perfect."

There are other benefits too.

"When I go grocery shopping with this car, I can always find it when I come out," she said.

"There's just empty space beside it — no one wants to park beside me."

'It’s a nice Cadillac with a good smooth ride and a good stereo,' Fleet says. 'I feel like it suits me.' (Julia Wright / CBC)

A lot of people ask questions. The most common one,  is why would such a self-described "shy, reserved" person pick up such an outlandish vehicle?

She shrugs.

"It's a nice Cadillac with a good smooth ride and a good stereo," she said.

"I love vintage stuff. I studied film history, and I feel like it suits me."

The main downside? "There are no speakers in the back," she deadpans.

"I just think it's a beautiful car. If anything, it adds a little mystique to the area."