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.
@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."
@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."
It's a safe bet that Kvetko's collection, while smaller, is considerably more graphic, with its heavy emphasis on what today would be considered gruesome. "People today don't realize how much funeral customs have changed over the last 100 years," says Kvetko. He points toward a not-readily-identifiable rusted platform with folding legs that, at first glance, might be mistaken for an early prototype of a Rube Goldberg-style collapsible ironing board. Kvetko reveals that the mystery object is actually a portable embalming table, an invention used from the turn of the century through the 1920s.
"It was more convenient for the undertaker to embalm the body right in the home, particularly in farming communities or rural areas," he explains. "After it was embalmed, the body was laid out in the parlor for a while before it was eventually removed and buried.
"Death was far more prevalent back then," he continues. "People didn't live nearly as long, so they were forced to deal with it more often, in a far more matter-of-fact way than we do today. To people back then, death was a part of life, not the enemy of life."
@body:Born into a family of professional pack rats (his father owns an antique store in Glendale; his mother deals in vintage clothing in Phoenix), Shad Kvetko claims he was destined from birth to spend his life collecting something. Little did he dream that that something would be strange looks from outsiders who couldn't quite fathom his fascination with the dead.
Bo Kvetko, owner of Elbo Antiques in Glendale, claims he hasn't a clue why his son is an "underground collector." Still, the senior Kvetko admits, "I get as much fun trying to find some of this stuff for Shad as he does collecting it."
Bo Kvetko theorizes that part of the fascination may have to do with the thrill of scoring these scarce artifacts, some of which (like a 100-year-old embalming table someone recently salvaged from a Phoenix landfill) turn up in his Glendale antique store. "You've got to remember that this stuff is pretty rare," he says. "A lot of people simply don't want it around."
Asked about her son's gravitation to the unliving, Shad Kvetko's mom takes a more psychological approach. "Like everyone else in this family, Shad has always been attracted to the unusual," reports Elli Thomas. "I remember going over to Shad's school when he was in the third grade to look at an art show, and all the other kids had drawn flowers and other cheery things in bright colors. Well, over on one wall was Shad's drawing--a dark and gloomy picture of a skeleton. I just thought, 'Well, that's my kid.' And he won a prize for it, probably because it was so different from everything the other kids were doing.
"What can I tell you?" she continues. "He's our seed, and like the rest of us, he's just marching to a different drummer, that's all."
As it turned out, young Kvetko's personal drummer was beating out a nonstop funeral dirge that just wouldn't quit.
"Shad was really quite a fascinating kid," agrees a longtime acquaintance of Kvetko's. "Even years ago, when he was a young teenager, he had this obsession with death. And if you'd let him, he could easily go on for hours talking about it. It was almost as if he were anticipating his first date with some real sexy person, only you knew the date wasn't ever going to equal the anticipation. But as much as I listened to him, I could still never figure out what the big attraction was. I think maybe he sees death as the last frontier."
@body:Fortunately for Shad Kvetko, he's one of the very few pioneers of postmortem paraphernalia.
"If a lot of people were to suddenly start collecting this, it would ruin the charm for me," confesses Kvetko, obviously relishing the notoriety his hobby has brought him. "That's not to say that there's some market for it, though. But, then, there's a market for everything." Even though the diehard collector claims to know a handful of like-minded aficionados around the country, Kvetko need not worry about going to his grave empty-handed. It's safe to assume that during his lifetime, at least, the quest for grisly souvenirs like human hair wreaths woven from the locks of the newly deceased (a common postmortem souvenir of a century ago) will never begin to rival the demand for more "acceptable" collectibles like Fiesta ware and vintage Barbie dolls.
Or so one gathers after scanning The Antique Trader, the nation's largest classified-ad publication for collectors. While the newspaper's readers regularly seek out such arcane items as tassled bridge tally cards from the 50s, vintage spark plugs and even old crab-meat and oyster cans, a spokesperson for the publication claims no one on the staff can remember anyone using the newspaper to buy or sell funeral antiques.
Like any serious collector, Kvetko is loath to reveal his sources, other than to say that everything he owns came to him through "legal" avenues. Somewhere along the line, the items were salvaged from defunct medical-supply houses and funeral homes, coroners' offices and estate sales. Skeletal material is believed to have been shipped in from impoverished countries such as India.
Prices vary widely, depending on who's buying what from whom. While the skeleton-coffin combo reportedly set Kvetko back a hefty $500, one woman was so eager to get a "cursed" Iranian finger casket off her hands that she let the collector have it for a mere $9.
Right now, Kvetko is hot on the trail of one of the very few items missing from his museum of the macabre.
"I have a friend whose mom is a nurse, and I asked if her mom could put me on the track of a body bag," reports Kvetko. "When my friend came back, she said her mom said if I really wanted a body bag, I'd have to earn one."
And what happens on the inevitable day he earns one the hard way?
"I don't want to be buried or cremated," he says firmly. "I want to be mummified." No bones about it.
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