Mourning Drive-Time

Death opens window of opportunity for owner of drive-through funeral home

At the Reverend Anthony Harvey's drive-through window east of downtown Phoenix, you can't cash a check, order a cheeseburger or pick up a six-pack.

Instead, he'll serve you a bier.
Earlier this year, Harvey installed a drive-through viewing window in his mortuary at 1641 East Jefferson. An option offered to customers at no added cost, the window is believed to be the only amenity of its kind in the state.

Housed under a carport that runs along one wall of the Harvey Funeral Chapel, the casket-length pane of glass allows grieving motorists to pay their respects to the dead without the hassle of leaving their cars. A tilted bier ensures optimum visibility for every bereaver in the car. If requested, the chapel will provide a guest registration book on a folding table.

"We've still got some work to do," concedes Harvey--an allusion to the carport wall recently damaged when an employee backed into it, as well as the awkwardness of having to rearrange the interior of his chapel every time there's a window viewing.

Still, what possible market can there be for this funeral-industry take on a fast-food drive-through?

"It's a convenience for the elderly to keep them from having to get out of their cars with wheelchairs or walkers or whatever," says Harvey, who took over the small mortuary in 1994. According to the funeral director, alternative scenarios might also involve families who are hesitant to bring small children to a traditional viewing or individuals who "can't stand the crying and stuff but still want to be able to visit the deceased."

But since the window was installed last spring, only one family has taken advantage of Harvey's brain child. Armed with lawn furniture and hampers of food, the family staged an all-night wake outside the window for a relative killed in a gang-related incident.

Harvey points out that the window (salvaged from a drive-through bank) is made of bulletproof glass--a necessary precaution in funerals for victims of gang violence, which frequently are held in his parlor. "Some crazy could decide this was his last chance to [get back] at the family and riddle the body with bullets," he explains.

Asked about the average length of a drive-by visitation, Harvey shrugs. "It depended on how close they were or how curious they are," he answers. "Some may have been trying to see where the person was shot or how well the makeup is done."

Unusual as the undertaking is (Harvey frequently receives calls from curiosity seekers puzzled over his Yellow Pages ad), drive-through viewing windows actually date to the heyday of drive-through everythings.

In 1968, Atlanta mortician Hirschel Thorton made headlines when he opened a five-window "moratorium," prompting a tongue-in-cheek Life editorial called "Time Saver for Busy Mourners." (The funeral home discontinued window service "years ago," reports a Thorton employee.)

A few years back, a Pensacola, Florida, undertaker revived the concept but admitted he really didn't care if anyone ever used his showcase. A first-generation mortician in an industry dominated by old family businesses, he told reporters the window was simply a gimmick to attract media attention in an otherwise staid business environment.

It's a gimmick that a spokesperson for the National Funeral Directors Association has no comment on, other than to say "this is not a trend."

Probably mirroring the sentiments of many, one local industry observer points out that the impersonal drive-through window bypasses the therapeutic interaction that occurs at a traditional viewing.

"Maybe [Harvey] considers it a service to people who don't have a lot of time," theorizes Jim McCready, president of Arizona Funeral Directors Association. "I don't condemn him. We are a consumer-driven profession and we try to do what people want, but I can't imagine that we'll see much demand for this. I don't know that I'd choose it for any of my family."

Anthony Harvey, meanwhile, is banking on the hope that a lot of other people will.

"I think people will appreciate the convenience," he says. "I know I will. It's much easier for me to put the deceased in the window than it is to hire personnel to put on a wake."

Prowl Webb Page Confidential--Dewey Webb's aesthetically questionable video collection, quasi-meretricious literary finds, gallery of objets du fromage and other nonstandard Americana--at www.phoenixnewtimes.com

 
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