A few years ago while walking through my neighborhood I was surprised by a vehicle I noticed in somebody’s driveway. It was a hearse that was meant for personal use. How did I know that it wasn’t being used in a professional way? The words “Keep Honking, You’re Next” were painted on the hearse. Because this is a family-friendly website, I doctored the picture to eliminate an expletive, but I’m sure you can guess what it is. I was fascinated by the notion of someone driving around a hearse for everyday transportation. It got me thinking: Can the car you drive make you deviant?
I like to show this picture to my students and ask whether they would drive the hearse. I ask this knowing that not all of my students have cars, and one might think that a student would take any car they could get. I even ask if they would drive it if it was given to them for free. Typically, in a roomful of forty students, two or three say they would drive it. Then I ask them to consider what their parents and friends would say. I do this to get them thinking about the reactions they would receive. It’s essential to take reactions into account when trying to determine if something is deviant.
Even if offered a free hearse, I think most people would refuse, partly because they’d be afraid of the reactions they would encounter. Put me in that group. If I couldn’t afford a “normal” car and someone offered me a free hearse, I’d decline. I couldn’t deal with the stares I’d receive.
I don’t know how common it is for people to drive a hearse as their daily mode of transportation, but I actually happened upon another hearse during a recent visit to my parents’ house. Parked on my parents’ street was a hearse with a Ghostbusters magnet! Who in the world was driving a hearse in my old neighborhood, I wondered?
My father, who knows everybody’s business on the street, told me it belonged to my friend Bill. I grew up next door to Bill, and I’ve known him since I was five-years-old. I don’t see him much anymore because he lives a few hours from where we grew up. So I caught him by e-mail to inquire about his hearse. I told him I wanted to write about his hearse as a possible example of deviant behavior. I explained that sociologists generally don’t use the word “deviant” as an insult. Rather, we use it to indicate unconventional behavior that may generate negative reactions. I asked him several questions:
1. Of all the vehicles to drive, why a hearse?
2. Have you encountered any negative reactions while driving it? For example, a stare or a dirty look?
3. What would happen if you picked up someone for a date in the hearse? Has this happened? What was the reaction of your date?
4. What do friends and family members say about your hearse?
5. Have you driven it to work? What were some reactions you received?
Bill replied that he was looking for a car to use in the winter. He has a Camaro that doesn’t handle the ice and snow. His plan to buy a “regular” vehicle (a Subaru) fell through. So, with a $1,000 budget, he searched Craigslist and found the hearse. He liked that it was a Buick LeSabre—he once owned one so it brought back fond memories. When he mentioned to his parents that he was thinking about purchasing a hearse, his mother said “Oh honey, don’t buy a hearse.” But the bottom line was that the car ran well and he could afford it, so the deal was done.
Bill acknowledged that the thought occurred to him that it was a weird vehicle to drive. But he likes the space it has to offer—he described it as a pickup truck with a cab on it, just a little creepier. He’s already thinking ahead to funny things that he can do for Halloween next year.
And, as a friend suggested to him, it would make for an awesome tailgating vehicle at a Buffalo Bills game (Trust me when I tell you that people bring all kinds of unique vehicles to the parking lots outside the Bills stadium. There’s a huge party scene in the parking lots before every Bills game). Overall, Bill views it as a practical multi-use vehicle; easy to move stuff and perfect to have during mountain-biking season. “The fact that it was used to transport corpses does not bother me,” Bill said, “I once dated a girl who became a mortician.”
As far as reactions, Bill did notice a woman stop in her tracks and stare the first time he drove it to work. While driving, two people have given him thumbs up. Several people have stopped him in parking lots to chat with him and quote lines from Ghostbusters. Three people have actually offered to buy the hearse (One of them likes to purchase unusual vehicles, including an old school bus). Two friends have made comments like “Every guy wants to own a car like this. And you can certainly pull it off.” One of his brothers loves it, his mother is now okay with it, and his father likes it. His nieces and nephews like it too (That doesn’t surprise me considering that children are less confined by convention compared with adults). In answer to my question about dating, he said that a woman he’s dating has friends who think its “cool as hell” that he drives a hearse.
Given that Bill has received many positive reactions, I had to question my assumption that driving a hearse is deviant behavior. Maybe driving a hearse isn’t as deviant as I initially thought it was. After all, if one’s behavior is met with approval rather than disapproval, then we are not in the deviance arena. I offered Bill a theory about some of the positive reactions he received: maybe it’s the case that some people actually respect the choice of an unconventional vehicle. Could it be that conformists have a certain amount of respect for nonconformists? That’s where I fit, anyway. For the most part I’m a “play by the norms” guy who likes it when someone else steps out of line (within reason, which is a subjective judgment).
With a few days to think things through, Bill sent me a message with an example of a negative reaction. He called a repair shop to make an appointment for a 1987 Buick LeSabre but didn’t mention it was a hearse. When he arrived for the appointment, the guy said “You didn’t tell me it was a dead person machine.” Also, when one of Bill’s friends takes the hearse to do some maintenance to it, he drives on back roads so that no one sees him.
Hmmm, I guess it’s a matter of mixed reactions, a lot of which are positive. I would conclude that driving a hearse is mildly deviant. It’s certainly a
long way from serious forms of deviance. I’d have to interview a lot more hearse drivers in order to learn about their experiences and to form a stronger opinion. I still think most people would be reluctant to drive a hearse and those who do will eventually encounter disapproval from others. Let’s put it this way. Suppose there was a deviance scale, with 1 being barely deviant and 10 being extremely deviant. I’d score driving a hearse as a 3. How about you?
I want to restate that sociologists don’t use the term “deviant” as a pejorative. Although “deviant” has a negative connotation in common usage, that’s not what sociologists intend when they apply the term. Both as a sociologist and as Bill’s friend, I don’t think he’s a “freak” for driving a hearse. But I bet some people do (for instance, strangers who might think that but don’t say anything to him, in which case he’s not aware of their reactions). Well, what do you think? Would you drive a hearse?