Known for her flamboyant hats and dazzling jewelry, Bernice Woods relished being in the public eye.
So when the longtime community volunteer and former Compton city councilwoman died last month, her children opted to place her open casket in the drive-thru display window of Robert L. Adams Mortuary in Compton.
“My mother was a community person,” said Gregory W. Woods, 55, the youngest of the deceased woman’s 10 children. “She meant so much to so many people. It is only fitting and proper that she would be viewed this way.”
Adams funeral parlor, a fixture in Compton since 1974, brings to the business of death a convenience of the living: drive-thru viewing of the dead.
Visitors are greeted by a huge red-lettered sign above the entrance of the stone building on East Palmer Street. In the reception lounge, gold chandeliers dangle so low that tall visitors have to duck. Plastic swathes the pink upholstered seats.
And off to the side of the main double doors is the covered and paved 12-foot wide drive-thru, its long glass display window visible from the street.
A handful of drive-thru funeral parlors are known to operate throughout the nation. There’s at least one in Chicago, another in Louisiana. But Adams is believed to be the only one in Southern California, according to owner Peggy Scott Adams.
“It’s a unique feature that sets us aside from other funeral parlors,” said Scott Adams. She married into the business in 1988 when she became wife to businessman Robert Lee Adams Sr., a former Compton politician. He died in 2005. She continued his legacy. A suit-clad bust made in his image stands near the entrance.
“You can come by after work, you don’t need to deal with parking, you can sign the book outside and the family knows that you paid your respects,” said Scott Adams. “It’s a convenience thing.”
The venue provides a speedy way for well-known community folk to be viewed en masse. Seniors don’t have to leave their cars. Those who can’t stomach stepping inside a funeral home don’t have to. Families can avoid the complications of hosting a formal indoor viewing. And the disabled can roll through in their own wheelchairs — as one woman recently did.
In the 1980s, cemetery shootouts made gang members reluctant to gather for graveside services. The drive-thru’s glass partition is bulletproof, Scott Adams said, and so for a while the mortuary became a popular location for gang funerals.
Scott Adams, a Grammy-nominated gospel singer known by fans as “the little woman with the big voice,” is generous with hugs, and sports six-inch heels, bejeweled acrylic nails and a varying array of hairstyles.
Her high spirits might seem misplaced in the somber setting of a mortuary. She admits she never thought “in a hundred years” that she would marry a mortician. But these days the funeral parlor has become her life’s love, she said, second only to singing.
“It’s a ministry for me to be able to help people at one of the most traumatic times of their life,” she added.
Funerals range from $1,295 upward, depending on the style and quality of the casket. Given the tough economic times, Scott Adams said she adjusts the price according to a family’s budget. And when often asked by families to sing at their loved ones’ funerals, Scott Adams typically obliges for free.
Although the drive-thru service has it fans, the majority of clients the mortuary serves still choose traditional indoor viewings, she said. This can take place in one of the parlor’s three interior viewing rooms or its chapel.
The mortuary doesn’t do much advertising, but Gregory Woods didn’t need an ad to guide him there. His mother had known the Adamses for years and specified that she wanted the parlor used for her funeral.
“She knew Peggy would do right by her,” Woods said.
On that recent March morning, the 86-year-old great-great-grandmother lay dressed as people were used to seeing her — in her Sunday best. She wore a cream-colored suit with gold taffeta trim and matching headdress. The ensemble matched the colors of the coffin. Her hands were posed as if in prayer. Someone had placed a dollar bill between the fingers of one hand.
Cream-colored roses arranged in the shape of a hat draped her casket. A matching wreath hung from a stand nearby. On the opposite side, a large head-shot photo of Woods in her younger days beamed through the glass at visitors.
By 10 a.m. it was round two for Robyn Russell as she idled in the drive-thru in her Ford Crown Victoria. She had come by herself earlier in the day. Now she was returning with her brother Horace Sinegal? in tow.
“I think it’s wonderful, “said Russell, as she cruised past Woods’ casket. “It’s nice to be able to drive through. You don’t have to go inside. It’s real convenient.”
Less than an hour or so later Russell was back again. This time with her 84-year-old mother, Gladys.
The older woman was dressed in her pajamas under her coat. She wasn’t feeling well but was determined to see Woods one last time. She was a “good person, a wonderful friend,” Gladys Russell said.
Robin Bradley got out of her SUV to sign the condolence book placed on a nearby pedestal. She wandered up to the window and stood for several seconds, then blew Woods a farewell kiss.
“It’s a wonderful thing having her be on display like this,” said Bradley, who was having her first drive-thru funeral parlor experience. “They have her in style.”
“It’s different,” said Mary PreJean, a relative of the Woodses who drove up with her friend Olivia Boudreaux.
“I’m used to just going up and looking into the casket, and spending as much time as you need,” said Boudreaux. “But it’s good this way. Not quite as emotional.”
The Rev. W.L. Burnett Sr. just happened to be walking down Palmer when he glimpsed the figure lying in the casket.
“No, no,” a visibly stunned Burnett muttered as he approached the glass. He stood in silence, mesmerized by Woods, whom he recognized as a public figure.
If she had been placed inside, “I probably would never have known,” Burnett said.