Drive-thru funeral parlor
By Lucy Nicholson
Nina Watson maneuvered her silver Cadillac into the drive-thru and pulled up to a big plate glass window.
She stopped and rolled down the passenger window so her mother, Flo Watson, could get a better look at the lifeless body of her late co-worker, Robert Sanders, who lay in a casket behind the glass.
Nina stepped out to snap a cell phone photo. Then she settled back in the driver seat, and put her foot to the pedal.
She left the scent of fumes, not flowers, in her wake.
In a culture dominated by cars, there are few things you can’t do on four wheels in Southern California. Add grieving to the list of conveniences more commonly associated with ordering burgers or doing banking.
The Robert L. Adams Mortuary in Compton lays claim to being the state’s only drive-thru funeral parlor.
Adams, who created the business in 1970s, was fittingly displayed in the drive-thru window when he died in 2005.
His wife Peggy Scott Adams, a Grammy-nominated gospel singer, continues to run the mortuary. She sings at funerals, when asked by grieving families.
“Some people don’t like the drive-thru, they think it’s not private enough,” says office manager Denise Knowles-Bragg. But she says others are happy to be offered the service, and welcome not having to look for parking.
“Older people don’t have to get out and come in to the mortuary. People who go to work, don’t have to miss work. It’s good for people don’t want their loved ones to be touched,” she says. “It also helps for dignitaries who have a lot of people coming to see them — the people can just drive through, and keep the procession going.”
The drive-thru became popular in the 1980s when shootouts were a danger at gang funerals. Now it’s only used a few times a year, with most people requesting viewings inside.
On the day I visited, Sanders’ family gathered around the casket inside the funeral home in the traditional way even as people motored up to mourn outside.
Clemetene Sanders, 75, touched her son, then burst into tears and left the room.
“I had to walk out because I know this is the last day I will see him, and I can’t stand that,” she said.
Sanders, like many of the drive-thru occupants, requested this type of viewing before he died at age 58 from kidney failure and other health problems.
“You never know how much people really like you … ‘til you’re gone,” mused Virgie Douglas, 60, as she stood over her younger brother.
I sit in the pink-carpeted reception area, on a Louis XIV-style chair covered in protective plastic, and wait for cars to pull up to the casket.
In the background, others are making arrangements for their own loved ones’ wakes.
A couple drops off a dress for their baby daughter’s viewing. Knowles-Bragg suggests another woman bring a long-sleeved dress to cover possible intravenous marks on her late sister’s arms.
Some kids walk past the exit to the drive-thru and gasp as they catch a glimpse of Sanders’ body under the chandeliers.
Every so often the sound of a car heralds another visitor.
Peter Taylor, 55, gets out of his white SUV and gazes motionless through the glass at his friend of 40 years.
“Man, could he tell stories,” he said. “We used to laugh, dance, tell stories. He was the entertainer.”
With no cars behind him, Taylor reflected alone for a while at the drive-thru. Then he signed the guest book, climbed into his car and took whatever grief he had down the road.