Antique dealer lists embalming table supposedly used at local funeral home after actor’s fatal car crash

PASO ROBLES — A listing on an antique’s social media page caught some attention from Paso Roblans — the listing in question was for an embalming table used in a local funeral home and likely held the remains of actor James Dean.

On Sep. 30, 1955, the sleepy town of Cholame on Highway 41 and 46 East, just outside of Paso Robles, made national headlines when Dean’s Porsche collided with a Ford Coupe, resulting in his untimely death.

This photo from 1955 shows the wreckage of James Dean’s Porsche after the Sept. 30, 1955, crash that killed the legendary actor. Contributed Photo

The “Rebel Without a Cause” star was said to have been traveling down the highway at speeds up to 90 mph when 23-year-old Cal Poly student Donal Turnupseed made a left turn onto Highway 41 in front of Dean. Unable to stop in time, Dean slammed into Turnupseed’s coupe. The crash left Turnupseed with minor injuries, but Dean was not so lucky.

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According to Dean’s death certificate, which is easily accessible online, he suffered a broken neck, multiple upper and lower jaw fractures, multiple fractures of the right and left arm, and internal injuries.

Also listed on the death certificate is the name of the funeral director — Kuehl Funeral Home of Paso Robles.

According to the antique dealer’s Facebook listing of the embalming table, “The table pictured is a 1928 champion embalming table made in Springfield, Ohio. This embalming table was purchased in 1928 by Kuehl’s Funeral home in Paso Robles, established in 1927. James Dean was brought to this funeral home in Sep. of 1955 after his car crash at Hwy 41 and 46 East.”

While the antique dealer posted the table on the Vineyard Antique Mall’s social media page, the dealer is separate from the antique store, located on Ramada Drive, and they wished to remain unnamed. 

They added, “There were only two embalming tables there at that time. This was one of the embalming tables that was used there at that time.” 

The antique dealer in possession of the table previously worked for the funeral home, now known as Kuehl-Nicolay Funeral Home. They told Paso Robles Press that it is incredibly likely Dean was either embalmed or prepped on the table.

According to some reports, Dean died at the collision scene. Still, others will say Dean was pronounced dead on arrival, shortly after arriving by ambulance to the Paso Robles War Memorial Hospital at 6:20 p.m. The hospital, located on 15th Street, has since closed its doors.

News of Dean’s death reached the world through television and radio. The death even made the front page of Paso Robles Press’s Oct. 3, 1955, issue.

The death of James Dean is reported on the front page of the Paso Robles Press issue of Oct. 3, 1955. Photo curtesy of the Paso Robes Area Historical Society and Museum

Three days after the fatal crash, an inquest into Dean’s death was made at the council chamber in San Luis Obispo, where the sheriff-coroner’s jury verdict was that Dean was entirely at fault for the accident due to his speeding. 

It should also be noted that Dean had recently picked up auto racing as a hobby. He was heading to the Salinas Road Race, scheduled for Oct. 2-3, 1955, at the time of his death. 

Dean is buried in Fairmount, Indiana, where he grew up for most of his life. 

The stretch of highway where Dean died is now marked as the James Dean Memorial Junction. A small memorial dedicated to Dean can be found at the Jack Ranch Cafe off the now infamous highway. 

Since the embalming table was listed for sale on the Vineyard Antique’s social media page, many have posted in the comments. Some are curious, some not so much. But either way, the table does hold a morbid part of Paso Robles history that catches attention — and is clearly quite the talking piece.