Stoic and stately in his black suit and top hat, Jerrell Cox guides his horses as they tow a shiny, black, glass-enclosed hearse bearing a polished brown casket. The slow “clop, clop” of the horses’ hooves on the pavement adds to the solemnness of the scene.
The gathered onlookers, however, are anything but grave. The casually clad teens smile, laugh, and take pictures with their cameras and cell phones as the procession rolls by. See, they’re not here to honor the “deceased” but to celebrate the completion of the horse-drawn hearse they built in their agriculture class at Claiborne High School in New Tazewell.
All involved agree: This was a cool — not creepy — project, accomplished over a 10-month period by a team of 25 dedicated, talented CHS students. Though the class had built horse-drawn wagons for Jerrell before, this old-fashioned hearse was definitely one of the most unusual assignments they had ever undertaken, says Mike Wilmoth, head of the school’s agriculture program.
“The enthusiasm from the students was the driving factor in this whole thing,” says Mike. “When Jerrell approached me about building a horse-drawn hearse, I was excited but told him I would have to run it by the students first because I knew they would basically be doing all of the work. They were also really excited and were on board from the very start.”
Long before he pitched the hearse idea, Jerrell, who graduated from CHS in 1973 and manufactures, sells, and reconditions saw blades for a living, was using his Friesian/Saddlebred cross horses for his hobbies of taking part in Old West-style wagon train processions and transporting newlyweds in a white carriage as a kind of symbolic first ride. Now, he can honor someone by giving a last ride.
“A good friend of mine in Kentucky was taking one of his friends who had passed away to the cemetery by horse-drawn hearse,” Jerrell explains. “The two of them had wagon-trained together for a long time. I’ve wagon-trained with a group since I was young so I could identify. We got to talking, and I decided that I wanted to have a hearse built. I ordered the wheels and springs, and from there Mike and his students agreed to take on the project.”
For some of the students, like sophomore Brittany Edds, the idea of horse and hearse together was a foreign concept, even though the practice still takes place in several parts of the U.S.
“I was wondering how it was all going to come together,” says Brittany. “I’d never seen a hearse made like that before; I was used to a hearse being a car.”
But once she saw photos and dove into the project with the rest of the group, Brittany’s enthusiasm sprang to life.
“Mostly I helped with detail stuff like cleaning the windows, hanging up curtains, and painting,” she says. “This was the most unique thing I’ve ever done. I’ve built a hay spear in class, but I liked this better. And I love horses, so I think the horse-drawn hearse is really cool.”
Senior Jacob Keller says the many hours of work he and his classmates put in made this the kind of project that will stick with him until the day he, well, dies.
“It was exciting and fun,” Jacob says. “A lot of people have told us that it looks really good. It was definitely a rewarding experience.”
With no real blueprint to go by other than photographs, Mike and the students knew they were in for a challenge. But they were “dead” set on doing the job right.
“Jerrell ordered everything that we needed to get started,” says Mike. “We were probably about a quarter of the way into it when he came by one day and said, ‘I have something to confess. That’s really not what I had in mind.’ He was wanting more of an open-type wagon. But when he saw what the students envisioned, and their excitement, he went with their design.”
And Jerrell says he’s tickled to “death” with the results.
“When you know how much time and work these young people put into building this, there’s a source of pride there,” says Jerrell, who has already fielded requests for his services from several individuals and area funeral homes since the hearse was finished in March. “It’s not about the horses, it’s not about the hearse, and it’s not about what I’m going to do with them. These students have been so dedicated. They’re proud of it, and I’m proud of them.”