Death Takes a Holiday

There are many ways to wind up in a hearse. Here are a few.

Before Zach and his buddies wrapped their bony fingers around them, most of the hearses had languished for years in storage yards, alfalfa fields and dusty warehouses. Gasoline distilled in the tanks. Hoses clogged. Seats rotted. Gaskets froze. It took an act of God -- not to mention the cunning of Dr. Frankenstein -- to get many of them started. And since most are custom-made and at least thirty years old, spare parts are practically nonexistent. Even rarer, club members say, is a mechanic with a straight face.

"No one takes you seriously," says Zach, who has owned eight hearses in six years. "They don't realize that we drive these cars every day. I used to take my car to the mechanic's once a month. I was writing detailed notes describing what was wrong and taping them to the steering wheel, but it wasn't getting fixed. I was spending $200 to $300 to have someone screw up my car, so I figured I might as well screw it up myself for free."

Which he did.

Dressed to kill: Zach Helm and his hearse.
John Johnston
Dressed to kill: Zach Helm and his hearse.

"Oh, yeah. I'd go in there and just pull things off," Zach recalls. "I'd look for the offending part spraying the offending fluid and then call someone to tell me how to turn the wrench the right way. I've caused an electrical fire. I've dropped a drive train on my hand. I've been hit by the back door several times. I've taken out two Cadillac engines. I've taken out two Oldsmobile engines. I've retrofitted things. I've matched electrical fittings that don't match. And on every repair, I've lost some portion of my flesh. Very seldom have I had a repair that did not involve bleeding."

But don't say that around Jason's hearse.

"Oh, no," Zach says. "She might take that as a cue to quit running."

This has nothing to do with birds, but Zach does have a weird thing with cops. At least once a month, as regular as the full moon, he gets pulled over.

"It's never anything serious," Zach says. "Most aren't sure what to make of me."

One Lakewood cop followed him for miles before Zach finally slowed to the curb and saved the officer the trouble.

"All he kept saying was, 'This is really unnerving. This is really unnerving,'" Zach recalls.

And Zach does his best not to disappoint.

"I make a point of keeping my registration and insurance forms in back so they have to follow me around back and watch me open the rear door," Zach says. "And they always say, 'You're not going to pull out an ax or a machine gun and mow me down, are you?' And I feel like saying, 'If I was, do you think I'd tell you?'"

Cops don't seem to realize that anyone driving a black-and-lavender hearse with flashing blue lights and a glowing purple skull is probably the most law-abiding citizen on the road. "Our cars are not exactly inconspicuous," Zach points out.

But most of the time, the cops are simply curious, bored and looking for a story to tell the boys over a few doughnuts.

"One guy told me, 'You know, this is the most interesting thing I've seen all day,'" Zach recalls. "And he started the morning with a triple homicide."

The members of the Denver Hearse Association know they have a certain reputation to uphold. And so they've detonated the occasional television set now and then. And they've been seen drag racing through the suburbs from time to time. And at least once a year, they unleash the hard candy.

"We call it 'The Pelting of the Innocents,'" Zach explains.

Every Halloween, he and the other men and women in black descend on the nearest Target and clean the shelves of the biggest, cheapest, most aerodynamic candy they can find. Then they head in single-file funerary procession to places like Larimer Square.

"Then we basically throw it at people," Zach says.

"It's like a candy fight," Eric concurs. "A drive-by with candy."

"But we don't do that anymore," Zach backtracks. "We figured it would be bad press."

"And people started throwing them back."

"I got pelted in the head with a Jolly Rancher pretty hard once."

"Now we give them out," Zach concludes. "We just lean out of the window and toss them underhanded. And we use softer candy."

"Like Gummi Bears," Eric adds.

When the club first began in 1996, it was essentially just Zach and Jeff and a few other mischievous goth kids whose idea of recruitment was chasing down other hearses on the highway. But now there's a Web site (, hearses of every style and color, and a membership roster featuring retired cops, computer programmers and suburban daddies.

"Most of us are just into the cars," Eric says. "They're shocking. They're unique. They're works of art. They come in really handy when you're moving. And you can take them camping, too. It's just really cool to meet people from different backgrounds who wouldn't normally associate with each other."

Besides the occasional Jolly Rancher firefight, they associate with one another at drive-in horror movies, at the annual Emma Crawford casket race in Manitou Springs (they placed last in the most recent race), and at Easter egg hunts at the Littleton cemetery. And although Jason worships Satan, the rest are basically a bunch of middle-class white dudes from the suburbs.

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