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October 2008 Volume 10 , Issue 10 submit to us!

by Carole Reno Brier -- Contributing Author [Email This Story]

Roy owned the only drive-thru funeral business in Maine. February ‘07 was Roy's best business month since opening Dignified Interments and Funeral Processions, Inc. in August 06. The Swenson funeral on February seventeenth was by far the most elaborate service they had directed to date. There were twenty-two cars, eleven trucks, nine snow-mobiles and twenty-four people in pews in the chapel-office combination for the Swenson's memorial service. The procession to the graveyard stopped traffic for ten minutes passing through town.

Tosh Swenson was well known locally as "that crackpot who runs for office." He campaigned with a plan to cover the entire town with a large clear dome. The cover would keep snow and ice off the streets in the winter, and rain and wind in the spring and fall. In summer vents would open automatically allowing cool air to circulate. It was his own unique design he said and he had the blueprints ready for engineering. He guaranteed the dome would save millions of dollars in salt and snowplowing costs alone and would be a marvelous tourist attraction. Voters were not convinced.

Before Roy got started in the drive-thru funeral trade he worked for a logging outfit. Logging the forests was physically hard and dangerous work but paid better than any other job in the county unless you got hired by the Maine Department of Transportation. MDOT jobs are hard to come by.

Roy said he was getting too old to work in the woods. "It's a job for young men," he told his wife, Arlene. Roy was thirty-four at the time. He figured he'd either get badly hurt or killed one of these days by some jackass working with him. Last December, Roy's best friend Joe Epps lost his left leg because he couldn't get out of the way fast enough.

For years Roy fantasized about starting a business. He daydreamed about not punching a time clock and answering to the foreman. Any business that let him stay warm and dry in the winter was worth contemplating.

Roy considered opening a second-hand book store for about ten minutes. He dismissed the idea because he didn't have the money to buy inventory. He didn't know much about books either. Roy preferred deer hunting to reading about Bambi. A liquor store appealed until he looked into licensing and start up fees. He dismissed a dog grooming business and a bait and tackle shop as not profitable enough. A gas station would be OK, but the town already had two.

Roy prepared to spend another winter logging. Maine winters are notoriously harsh. Spring arrives in late April, summer runs from Memorial Day to Labor Day, and winter begins in September. The day after Labor Day, Kevin and Marcy Upholder drain and cover the outdoor swimming pool at the Branch Pond Resort and Family Restaurant. The Big Scoop ice cream shop on Elm Street in North China closes for the season. Jack and Moira Nichols, owners of the jet-ski and boat rental place on Lake Sebago leave for Florida sunshine.

By the end of September the winter's wood supply has been chopped and neatly stacked near the house. The air is crisp and clear. The sun has lost its summer strength. Newcomers to Maine and babies need a light jacket or sweater to keep the chill at bay. By the first of October wood fires burn in Blackmore 2000 stoves overnight. The air smells of pine needles, with a suggestion of burning leaves and a hint of hard frost. Early frost kills the purple pansies in window boxes, potted red geraniums, and green zucchini the size of baseball bats. Pliant oak leaves turn brittle brown and fall quietly to the ground. A thick coat of heavy frost soon follows. November rain, sleet and ice set the stage for the first flurries of perfect white snowflakes. Daylight hours dwindle; dusk arrives a little earlier each day.

Roy was enjoying a cup of fresh, hot coffee and reading the Kennebunk Times when a small advertisement caught his eye. He read the ad even though he was not of the church going faith.


The Pentecostal Mission Church invites you to join us in services at our new location on Wayland Avenue, the old Second Federal Bank building. Hymns and prayers will be offered in the refurbished church (formerly the bank lobby). Additionally you can actively participate in the service from the parking lot. Drive by any of the six pneumatic tube stations (formerly the drive-thru teller's windows) and a two-way audio system and a hymnal will be sent to your vehicle via the tube. Select a parking space and turn on the audio system. Join in the worship service and hear the homily offered by The Reverend Samuels without ever leaving your warm vehicle. After the service simply hand the audio system, hymnal and your weekly tithe to any of our ushers as you exit the lot. Bring your family and your Bible on Sunday at 8 A.M.!'

Roy thought this was a splendid idea for the church attending type. Hunters who wanted to pray for a clear shot would go to church in camouflage instead of suit and tie. Worshipers who wanted a run on virgin snowmobile trails would get an early start. You could go to church in your pajamas, last night's party dress, or long-johns and nobody would know.

Roy zapped a bowl of oatmeal, laced it with honey and added skim milk. Then he read the death notices. He thought there were more obituaries during the winter than the summer. After the holidays were over the short, cold days were a let-down. Elderly folks around the county and patients at the Elks Rehabilitation Center and Nursing Home passed away more often in the coldest months it seemed. He figured some people concluded spring wasn't worth waiting for and decided to inhale for the last time. Roy sipped his coffee and thought about the demand for funerals.

Roy read on; it wasn't just old people who died. Roy scanned obituaries of people who died in snow machine accidents, and while shoveling snow, or due to the combination of speeding, black ice and one too many Molsons. Some even died after a lingering illness.

There was obviously a market for funerals. He'd open a funeral parlor and offer memorial services! Thanks to the Pentecostal Mission Church he had the unique hook - drive-thru funerals. No other funeral parlor in the county, the state, and maybe even in the nation offered drive-thru funerals.

The first thing Roy did was visit Joe Epps to talk him into using the settlement money he got from the logging company for training as an embalming specialist. Roy told Joe that even if the drive-thru funeral business didn't catch on Joe would still get work because embalmers "are always in demand." Roy didn't know if that was true but this business was going to be a huge success so a little white lie didn't matter. Joe agreed to go to Augusta for training at Preston's Embalming School.

Next Roy went to the First Federal Savings and Loan and was promptly refused a loan. The bank manager, never-one-to-take-a-risk, Tom Richards thought the idea of drive-thru funerals was nuts.

"Anyway," Tom said, "your credit score isn't high enough and you don't have any collateral."

After the bank's refusal Roy moved on to Plan B and borrowed money from everyone he had ever known including relatives and his in-laws. Arlene knew he was serious about the venture when he sold the snow machine, helmet and snowmobile suit to Eric at the bait and tackle shop and stopped buying six packs of Molson. Arlene kicked in the $463.18 she had hidden in her underwear drawer. She'd been saving loose change for a honeymoon trip since she and Roy married in 2001.

After nearly a year of pleading, petitioning and promising payback with interest, Roy had enough cash to buy the defunct drive-in movie on Jackson Road. Joe graduated from embalming school at the top of his class and was eager to begin his new career. Things were looking up. Roy worked his notice with the logging company, "It's always best not to burn bridges", he said. Roy, Joe and Arlene went to work painting, scrubbing and cleaning the drive-in theater, refurbishing the old refreshment center into a combination chapel and office.

Roy returned to the bank and offered the drive-in theater as collateral. Tom Richards, impressed with Roy's resolve agreed to a line of credit at business rates.

With money available Roy applied for and received all the required county and state business licenses. ‘Dignified Interments and Funeral Processions Inc. coming soon was spelled out in shiny new vinyl letters on the freshly scrubbed and painted marquee.

After spending hours on the phone with the dealer in Casco negotiating a price, Roy purchased a previously owned hearse. He ran advertisement in the local newspaper. He visited every church and minister in the county leaving his newly minted business card. He also dropped in at the morgue and the emergency room at the hospital.

Dignified Interments and Funeral Processions Inc. held its first memorial service for Oscar Matthews. The service and the interment went without a hitch. The Rev. Samuels gave the eulogy and the family was happy with the arrangements and the reasonable price. Word spread rapidly through the county and state about the drive-thru funeral place. People commented that the Drive-Thru Funeral Place gave families good value. Roy's basic package started at $1000.00. Many elderly had no burial insurance except the three hundred dollars provided by Social Security. Families had to find money for the balance due and often it was not an easy task. Roy introduced a monthly payment plan at low interest rates.

When Roy wrote his business plan he listed advantages to drive-thru funerals that included the sorrowing not leaving a warm vehicle and crossing an icy parking lot decreasing liability for a fall. Allergies aggravated by flower arrangements, overpowering perfume, aftershave and lotion were eliminated. There were other subtle benefits. Long-johns, blue jeans, flannel shirts, wool sweaters and socks are the preferred attire of stylish Maine residents in winter. Often the scent du jour is ash residue as wood stoves have been emitting smoke for months. A drive-thru funeral lets people offer condolences and sorrow for loss while wearing comfortable, soft, well-worn sweatpants.

Roy's future was bright as a sunshiny summer day until he heard a rumor that Arco Jennings bought the old, no longer used K-Mart Plaza in Limerick and planned to offer drive-thru funeral services beginning in April.

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Features -- October 2008 -- Beginning Month Issue