Offering one last ride in Hog heaven

A Tombstone hearse

TEXT OF STORY

KAI RYSSDAL: Elvis is dead -- but boy, can he still sell. The King leads the Forbes list of top-earning dead celebrities... $49 million in Presley-related sales the past 12 months. John Lennon and Charles M. Schulz came in at numbers two and three.

But even their combined total is dwarfed by a related industry: Funerals are a $20 billion-a-year business in this country. It's recession-proof, and pretty much all of us could be described as potential customers.

But that doesn't mean funeral directors don't have to be on the cutting edge to stay competitive -- Carl Marziali explains.


Carl Marziali: In the funeral business, somber and dignified never go out of style. But some forward-thinking undertakers are making noise with a new take on the classics.

sound: [Harley Davidson revving up, then idling]

That would be a hearse -- a hog hearse. Specifically, a Harley-Davidson Road King with 88 cubic inches of casket-hauling power. It's a big novelty in an industry known more for tradition.

Jack Feather was managing a construction company when he took a road trip on his Harley to Tombstone, Arizona. And that's where he came face-to-face with the horse-drawn hearse that carried Billy Clanton after the shootout at the OK Corral.

Jack Feather:Looked at that, just the idea popped in: "Well, what if you took the horses away, put a Harley under it and did it for biker funerals?"

So Feather quit his job and founded the Tombstone Hearse company. He says he knew it would work:

Feather: Because there's about 10 million motorcycle enthusiasts out there. It's a completely untapped market, and the loyalty to the lifestyle is there. And people will pay anything, basically, to continue that, or just to break from the norm.

From its base in Pennsylvania, Tombstone has sold a total of 18 hearses since 2003 -- sticker price $80,000. Smelling opportunity, a Florida-based competitor has also jumped in.

Both companies convert the hog to a trike and hitch it to a closed trailer with glass sides. Dress code for the chauffeur is formal Harley: black jeans, black boots, white shirt, black leather vest and the classic soup-bowl helmet.

Joanne Meyer: I thought it was beautiful.

Joanne Meyer first saw the Harley hearse at Michigan Memorial Park, near Detroit. For someone who rode dirt bikes and married another biker, it was irresistible. She's booked a passage on the hearse for herself, her deceased husband and the rest of their household.

Meyer: I'll be cremated, I'll be put into the urn, my dogs will be with us. So it'll be my husband and I and our two dogs in the urn, and our last motorcycle ride.

It may be the first ride for other customers. Feather and other funeral directors say the Harley hearse also appeals to vets and their families, and to all kinds of people who've never straddled a hog.

Feather: Our market isn't just to the bikers -- it's for anybody looking for something unique and very classy.

All this horrifies Charlotte Hays, co-author of the etiquette book Being Dead is No Excuse: The Official Southern Ladies' Guide to Hosting the Perfect Funeral.

Charlotte Hays: No, I think the Harley hog is not good taste. I suppose if you rode a motorcycle in life and you absolutely want it, maybe that's okay -- but I think the procession of cars behind the hearse with the light on in the front car, I think that's just the epitome of dignity. And the other thing about a funeral is, it's not the time you want to be creative.

Others might say it's not the time to be boring. It's an argument that may never be settled. But just to help you decide, here's that Harley hearse one more time:

sound: [Harley Davidson revving up, then idling]

In Los Angeles, I'm Carl Marziali for Marketplace.

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