I’m not afraid of death, nor small towns, nor people who live on the outskirts of small towns who are obsessed with death. That’s what I’m telling myself when I pull up to their remote house, which is fenced off and requires someone inside to open the driveway gate. I’m in the middle of nowhere, the eerily quiet desert between Death Valley and Pahrump, visiting this couple whose dirt side yard is, I notice upon pulling up, full of hearses. Twelve by my count. Old, rickety deathmobiles. There’s a cemetery in the front yard—tombstones—and a gazebo shaped like a coffin, and the two people I’m here to meet are wearing all black, and the sun is going to set soon, and I’ve forgotten to tell anyone back in Vegas my precise whereabouts, and when I pull through the gate, the man shuts and locks it behind me. I am going to die.
Suspiciously, they’re very nice when I get out of my car. Dusty and Bryan Schoening, the owners of this monument to death, smile and extend their hands. I suppose they figure there’s no point in lopping off my head right here, right now—too easy. They strike me as bright people. Their business fills its niche: making and selling coffins. It’s more than a business, really; it’s more like an obsession, or a calling, or an all-consuming raison d’etre. Nice irony in that: a reason to live is to prepare for death. I wonder, as I shake their perfectly warm hands, what constitutes a nice death. I keep that to myself.
We head to the hearses right away. The first one, the one they call Mr. Frost, is a white 1972 Cadillac. Dusty, a petite woman with long dark hair, refers to the hearse as “he.” In fact, she refers to all of the hearses as he, and her husband, the clean-cut-looking artist who makes hundreds of coffins and coffin-shaped coffee tables and jewelry and entertainment centers in the shop behind the house, occasionally as Daddy. They open the hearse doors and let me stick my head in to see the coffin in the back, which is occupied by a fake corpse. I am not freaked out. I am relieved: A fake corpse is funny. A fake corpse is far better than a real, rotting corpse, and even better than an empty coffin, which would suggest the possibility that the Schoenings are looking for someone to put in it. Like, say, a stupid writer who has wandered out here all alone.
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Their sense of humor is woven into their self-described weirdness: There’s a lot of funny out here on their acres, as well there should be, given the ridiculous nature of death—the abrupt and meaningless conclusion to the similarly describable human experience. For starters, the business is called Coffin It Up. That’s the first funny thing, depending on your interpretation of funny. The second is that Bryan is also a minister who performs weddings for, among others, conservatives who never seem to notice the little skull print on his formal jacket. The third is that their daughter, who is now 22 and moved away, hates dark stuff and loves pink stuff and rebelled against her parents’ obsession by going to the light. Reverse rebellion. When she comes to visit, they have to put sunglasses on the fake skeleton in their living room because the fake eyeballs creep her out. The fourth funny thing is that the longer I talk to Bryan and Dusty, the more I believe they’re actually pretty normal for a couple who has a row of fake dead children in the living room.
“I’ve been a woodworker all my life. It was just a natural progression right into coffins,” Bryan says as they lead me into the workshop, which is filled with saws—yikes—along with hand-made, custom coffins—large, small, measured to the body or themed for parties—and the rebuilt engine of a 40-year-old hearse.
“This is just our thing,” Dusty says. “I collect coffins. I’ve always had painted black fingernails, since I was 11. We’ve always been the weird kids, and Bryan has always been an artist.” They met at an elephant protest more than 25 years ago and recently celebrated their anniversary by taking Mr. Frost through Vegas’ drive-through wedding chapel for a renewal of vows.
Still, not everyone understands the Schoenings. “We get branded as bad people, but we’re actually good people,” Dusty says. Bryan speaks regularly to schoolkids about the dangers of drunk driving. Each New Year’s Eve, they host a community ceremonial burial of tokens of bad things that people wish to forget, or bury. For example, last year someone brought their foreclosure notice; another brought pictures of an ex to rid memories of a bad relationship.
Does being surrounded by images of death ever get wearying?
“Not at all,” Bryan says. “Death happens.”
For me, not on this trip. After introducing me to their pet iguana and showing me their architectural model of a dream home shaped like a coffin, the Schoenings wish me well and send me back on the highway to Vegas. They’ve got work to do; ’tis the season.