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One last ride, in high style, to an eternal rest

A 1962 Cadillac hearse is a polished jewel in ‘understated elegance’

Tim Kelleher, with his restored 1962 Cadillac hearse at Smith Kelleher Funeral Home in Greenfield.Matthew Cavanaugh/For The Boston Globe

GREENFIELD — It is a thing of beauty. Classic black. Impossibly long. It’s shiny and elegant. It fairly sparkles as the sun glints off the mirrored chrome that accents its 59-year-old fenders.

Sometimes, as it makes its way slowly to the cemetery, passersby will stop on the sidewalk, their mouths agape, as the old hearse carries another soul to eternal rest. In classic style.

“I see people driving in the other direction, whether they see me on Main Street or the highway, and their eyes light up,’’ Tim Kelleher said. “They give me the thumbs up. People walking down the street? Same response. ‘Oh, wow! Look at that!’ ’’

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Tim Kelleher is in the death business. It’s been his family’s calling card since the 1940s, and he conducts himself with polished professionalism and understated class.

“In this industry there are people who don’t have the type of family background that I have and sometimes they overlook little things,’’ he said. “Just the way you look and the way that you appear and the way that you present yourself. What you say to the family. That type of thing.

“I hear all the time when I walk in the door, they always say, ‘I’m so glad it’s you and not somebody else.’ It’s just your presentation and your words of encouragement to the family. ‘We’ll take care of it. Just be at ease.’ ’’

And now there’s a perfectly restored 1962 Cadillac hearse at the curb that reassures his customers here and in Shelburne Falls that their loved ones’ last ride sure will be a memorable trip.

“It’s an understated elegance,’’ Kelleher told me the other day before I climbed into his hearse’s front seat.

Kelleher’s journey to the seat behind this classic hearse’s steering wheel now looks like the fulfillment of family destiny, following in the footsteps of his father and grandfather.

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But it almost did not turn out that way.

He grew up in the family’s funeral home in Shelburne Falls, the second-oldest of five sons, who as a little kid was used to dressing a body and placing it in the casket before the funeral home’s doors opened for another wake.

“You just get accustomed to it,’’ he told me as we sat in the parlor of his funeral home here. “My friends would have random kid questions. You know: Do you sleep downstairs with the bodies? Do they make any noise? Do you hear anybody talking? Do they sit up in the casket?’’

It was kid stuff. Stuff that, for a while, looked like it would soon be in his rear-view mirror.

He graduated from Mohawk Trail Regional School in 1983 and dreamed of life as a park ranger somewhere out West. He worked for a lumber company in New Hampshire. He earned a degree in forestry from the University of Massachusetts Amherst in 1987.

But life rarely unfolds in a straight line. There are dead-ends and diversions. Plans are made. And then remade. When his father fell ill and then died at age 50, Tim Kelleher went into the family business.

“I thought, well, there’s an existing business that has a history and I’m familiar with it so I can just step into it and continue the family business,’’ he said. And that’s what he did.

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He built a business. Got married. He and his wife of 30 years, Laura, have two children. Sometimes he thinks about what life would have been like in Wyoming. But these days you can find him in the front pew at local funeral services for friends and neighbors and strangers. He does it about 100 times a year.

For a long time, the sleek black hearse waiting outside the church was an 8-year-old serviceable vehicle, used not new because Tim Kelleher had to keep his eye on the books and the bottom line.

“So I was looking at my lease payments every month,’’ he told me. “And I was saying, ‘You know, why pay what I’m paying for a vehicle that looks like any other hearse out there?’ And I was just kind of thinking: ‘Well, I still like old cars. So what if I found an old hearse and pay basically the same or even a little less on monthly payments and have something that I would enjoy and I know would attract attention.’ ’’

And that’s how Kelleher and his wife found themselves in Mount Dora, Fla., two summers ago after spotting his dream hearse on a licensed dealer’s website.

“This is it!’’ he said when he saw the car.

He plunked down $45,000 for it and then spent another $20,000 to polish into the jewel that it is.

His auto body shop covered it in plastic. New gray primer paint was applied. An undercoat of oil kept rust at bay.

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“It was in decent shape,’’ Kelleher told me. “It didn’t run awfully clean. It was coughing and choking.’’

The carburetor was cleaned up. A new exhaust system was installed. Door dings and scrapes were pounded out and made smooth again.

He told his auto body man: “Take your time. Do not rush. Do not think I’m breathing down your neck. I’m going to leave you alone. I don’t need it until the spring. So take your time.’’

“I was always there to tell him there’s no rush,’’ he said. “I always brought him money because he always needed that.’’

The result now sits in the parking lot of Tim Kelleher’s funeral home after riding out the winter in storage.

And Tim Kelleher is ready to present it to the families he serves, certain they’ll see the class and grace that he sees in the old Caddy.

That’s what Bill Dewey saw after his mom, Betty Ann Christenson, died late last year.

Tim Kelleher picked up Mrs. Christenson’s body and got things ready for a Monday funeral.

“It was a beautiful fall day and her plot was in the back of the cemetery,’’ Dewey recalled. “It was cool to see this beautiful old car pulling in because it’s not a modern cemetery and a lot of the graves are from the 1800s. I don’t think she would have minded at all.

“We thought she would be honored.’’

It’s hard not to feel that way when a three-ton 1962 Cadillac is leading the procession.

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I sat in the front seat as we rode through the streets of Greenfield. The black leather seats were plush.

There were 37,631 miles on the odometer.

There were admiring glances from pedestrians and other drivers.

Tim Kelleher was at the wheel of the 21.5-foot-long hearse. And he was smiling.

And I couldn’t help but thinking that my next ride in a hearse almost certainly won’t be so classy or as much fun. I know one thing is certain: The view will be worse.

But sitting up front with the new owner of this vintage hearse, it was hard not to smile along with him on one of life’s unexpected joy rides.


Thomas Farragher is a Globe columnist. He can reached at thomas.farragher@globe.com.