Wineka column: Harley-Davidson hearse carries coffin to burial

Published 12:00 am Friday, April 15, 2011

By Mark Wineka
ROCKWELL — Carolyn Motley’s last ride was a short one — about a quarter of a mile from Powles Funeral Home to Brookhill Memorial Gardens.
But it was one the lifelong motorcycle enthusiast would have appreciated. Her coffin took the final journey in a Harley-Davidson hearse.
“It couldn’t be better,” Sandy McGee of Winston-Salem said of motorcycle hearse’s being available for her friend. “That’s Carolyn, right there. That’s my gal.”
Motley, 57, lost her life Sunday evening when her Harley-Davidson crashed into a trailer being backed into a driveway off Sherrills Ford Road.
The driver of the sport utility vehicle attached to the trailer was charged with misdemeanor death by vehicle and driving with a revoked license.
Carolyn’s son, Todd, said if anything positive could result from his mother’s death, he hoped it would be increased awareness by other drivers of motorcyclists on the road.
Every biker, he said, has his or her stories of close calls, when other drivers weren’t paying attention or didn’t give motorcycles the distance and respect on the road they required.
Ira and Laura Barrett, owners of Black Stallion Motorcycle Hearse in Easley, S.C., have one of those stories and, in a way, it led Ira to establish his motorcycle hearse service.
They were riding home together from an October 2006 church service one night when their Kawasaki Voyager motorcycle, going 65 mph, hit a deer on a four-lane highway.
While Ira emerged “clean as a whistle,” he said, Laura took the full brunt of their impact with the deer. Lying on the road, she quit breathing four times before being stabilized and airlifted to a hospital, where she lay in a coma for three days.
Afterwards, she faced weeks of physical and speech therapy, having to learn how to walk and talk again as her bruised body and brain made a gradual recovery.
She came back astonishingly well, proving to Ira that prayer and faith work.
He said when his wife was close to death, and the doctors were telling him it was in the Lord’s hands, he started asking himself what he was going to do if she died.
He would have wanted her to take the “ride to eternity” on a motorcycle, Barrett thought. Motorcycles have always been an integral part of their lives. They have been married 31 years and even went on their first date on a 1976 Honda 750, which impressed Laura’s motorcycle-loving father.
The Barretts later took four months — with a friend’s help — to build and design a hearse trailer that is pulled by their “Black Stallion” 2006 Harley-Davidson Ultra Classic with a Lehman Trike conversion for increased stability.
It is a way, they say, to honor the lives of bikers and bring a little peace to families who have lost them.
At Powles Funeral Home, Matt Staton and Doug Bare knew of the Black Stallion hearse, and they mentioned it to Todd Motley and his family as they planned arrangements after Carolyn’s death.
“They kind of lit up,” Staton said.
Carolyn Motley, who friends called “Shorty” because of her 5-feet, 3-inch stature, had ridden motorcycles as long as 37-year-old Todd could remember.
“I said, ‘Absolutely, we are going to do that for her,’ ” he said.
On the head wall of the hearse closest to the motorcycle, Ira asked an artist to paint a scene similar to the one he and Laura found themselves in just before striking the deer and almost losing Laura. A reminder, if you will.
They also furnished the 8- by 4-foot-wide hearse with funeral draping, lights and a wooden floor. The exterior has an 18th century, horse-drawn carriage styling with lanterns and a pair of black stallion horse figurines in a special window in front.
Barrett hauls the motorcycle hearse in a 24-foot trailer to keep it from getting dirty on the trips from Easley.
To give the motorcycle a little more oomph for pulling the hearse (600 pounds without a casket), Barrett said the 88-cubic-inch engine was bored out to 104 cubic inches. He also had a reverse gear added so he could maneuver the trailer better, and he upgraded the braking.
Since establishing the business, the Barretts have been hired for 16 funerals, including five this year.
Laura Barrett is back riding motorcycles, by the way.
Ira Barrett, 51, retired from the U.S. Air Force in 1997 after 20-plus years and having served in Operation Desert Storm and Operation Provide Comfort.
An employee for Greenville (S.C.) County, he belongs to the fraternity of Patriot Guard riders, who sometimes provide motorcycle escorts for veterans.
Barrett refuses to make his hearse available for events tied, for example, to Halloween, saying it would disrespect the families whose loved ones he has carried to rest.
Sometimes the spouses of the deceased bikers ask to sit behind Barrett on the road to the cemetery because they want to share that last ride, he said. Otherwise, Laura rides with him.
Barrett gives the closest family member an “angel bell,” symbolizing to him that the deceased is “riding in heaven on streets of gold.”
“I go with the spiritual part of it,” Barrett said of the bells, which many bikers carry to keep them safe.
The Barretts think they are the only independent business offering a motorcycle hearse in the Carolinas and Georgia. A few funeral homes also provide the service, Ira said.
Black Stallion spreads the word about its business at funeral director conventions, expositions, bike rallies and through advertisements in “Full Throttle” magazine.
A Rowan County native, Carolyn Motley worked more than 20 years at the now shuttered Philip Morris plant in Concord, and friends from there remembered her fondly for her upbeat personality and smile.
“It was a wonderful idea,” Philip Morris co-worker Sharon Hoffman said of the motorcycle hearse. “She never met a stranger and always laughed.”
Others spoke of her willingness to take a ride in her Harley “at the drop of a hat.”
Todd Motley said at one time, all his mother had for transportation was her motorcycle.
“She had the biggest heart in the world,” he said.
Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263.