HEARSE CASTLEFOR THIS VALLEY DEAD HEAD, COLLECTING VINTAGE FUNERAL MEMORABILIA IS A MAJOR UNDERTAKING

Shad Kvetko's house looks a fright. And, frankly, the 21-year-old wouldn't have it any other way. Kvetko has spent more than half of his life collecting ghoulish artifacts that have allowed him to turn his west Phoenix bachelor pad into something resembling a year-round spook house. He may not have skeletons in the closet, but he's got a skull on the coffee table.

"Make that 'coffin table,'" jokes Kvetko, indicating the roughhewed casket located in front of a vintage, red-velvet settee. On top of the casket sits a human skull with a cigarette wedged between its teeth.

An antique dealer who occasionally moonlights as an exterminator (an irony not lost on anyone who has ever visited his morbid lair), the stocky Kvetko lives in a house that looks like a cross between a turn-of-the-century funeral parlor and a prop warehouse for the next Addams Family epic. Imagine a 1950s tract-home version of the House of Usher and you begin to get the picture. The only thing missing--at least so far--is Vincent Price.

Almost certainly the largest array of funeral-oriented artifacts in the city, if not the entire state, Kvetko's vast collection of funeraria (as collectors of this ilk call their troves) now includes hundreds of pieces. The macabre memorabilia ranges from hands-on mortuary tools of the past to tasteless premiums once handed out by funeral-industry salesmen, like the coffee mug from an Indiana funeral home emblazoned with the phrase "The Last Word in Fine Service."

"I'm just trying to put the 'fun' back into 'funeral,'" says Kvetko as he guides a visitor into his tomblike living room, a creepy chamber whose main source of illumination is a lighted clock from the Eisenhower era advertising a national tombstone franchise.

Against one wall stands a vintage porcelain embalming table that now holds Kvetko's videotape collection and once, friends report, even served as his bed.

Against the west wall, on a funeral gurney, is another casket, this one an elaborate "display" model with a picture window enabling viewers to see the head of the dear departed. Resting within, on a bed of rotting satin, is a 110-year-old skeleton that Kvetko has dubbed "Slim"--in a prior lifetime, it served as a visual aid in a medical school.

In the corner, near an antique sign announcing "Funeral Parking," is a 1950s kiddy car, piloted by a child-size Mexican Day of the Dead sculpture.

Other grimorabilia scattered around the house include a leather case containing scary-looking embalming tools; a velour-covered baby coffin; yellowing memorial photos of various corpses lying in state; a backless, strap-on burial suit for a small boy; and a makeup kit featuring "Veino," a patented "Beautifying and Massage Cream" for cadavers.

@rule:
@body:"Some people misunderstand what I'm doing, and think I'm being disrespectful toward the dead," says Kvetko, who insists that in spite of his collection, he has no interest in becoming a mortician. "They think what I'm doing is morbid, and, in a way, I guess, it is. But there's certainly no disrespect intended. I can assure you that I'm not into serial killers, grave robbing or necrophilia." Still, that doesn't begin to explain why Kvetko has chosen to decorate his entire home in a style that can only be described as Early Undertaker. Or why he chooses to wear a necklace made of human bone--he purchased it at Necromance, a Los Angeles shop specializing in such jewelry. What on Earth--or, to be more exact, under it--is behind this man's fatal attraction to old funeral paraphernalia? Flashing a perplexed grin, Kvetko ponders the much-asked question that may well plague him to his dying day.

"That's a tough one," admits the man who once tooled around town in a 1960 hearse. "I guess one of the things that first attracted me and still attracts me to collecting this sort of thing is the great mystery involved with death. It's one of the few things that we're never going to fully understand. And, of course, I've grown up around collectors, and so that influence just manifested itself in that aspect of my life. It's a hard thing for me to articulate."
@rule:
@body:Kvetko, however, is considerably more articulate talking about what he collects than about his reason for collecting. And he hopes one day to open his home as an appointment-only museum, if for no other reason than to contrast funeral practices of the past (such as the omnipresent "memorial photos" of the deceased) with the attitudes of today. Disregarding the odd mom-and-pop exhibition in the back of a small-town undertaking parlor, only one such museum is believed to exist in America. Funded by a company that operates a chain of funeral homes and cemeteries around the country, the American Funeral Home Museum in Houston, Texas, recently celebrated its first anniversary. Described by a spokeswoman as a long-overdue tribute to "a proud profession," the 20,000-foot exhibit has reportedly drawn "thousands" of visitors, ranging from school groups to vintage-car buffs eager to drool over old hearses.

Located on the property of a mortuary college, the museum claims to have the largest collection of funeral-service artifacts and memorabilia in the country, dating back to the 1800s. In addition to funeral relics, the museum features three nonstop video loops, including one that stresses "the value of the modern funeral."

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