If you’re wondering about the history of hearses in the United States, this article is written for you.
You may have heard the rhyme, “Never laugh as a hearse goes by for you may be the next to die.” A hearse is one of the most readily identifiable symbols of death because a hearse is used to transport a coffin from a church or funeral home to a cemetery.
The iconic hearse is the primary vehicle of the funeral industry. The hearse is a large automobile that transports the remains to the final resting place.
In the funeral trade, a hearse is generally called a funeral coach. Funeral directors find that term less morbid and more dignified than the term hearse. In this article, we will still refer to these vehicles as hearses, because that is familiar to most people.
ORIGIN OF THE HEARSE
The word “hearse” originally comes from the French word “herse”, which means a harrow, a rake-like tool used to plow fields. Here’s the evolution of the word hearse according to Merriam Webster:
“Medieval French used the word herce for a harrow, a farm tool used to break up and smooth the soil. Herce was also applied to a triangular frame that was used for holding candles. Herce was borrowed into Middle English as herse. In those days, a large and decorative framework might be raised over the tomb or coffin of an honored person. Because this framework was often decorated with candles, the word herse was applied to it. A series of slightly changed meanings led to the use of herse (Modern English hearse) for a platform for a corpse or coffin, and from that to a vehicle to carry the dead. The verb hearse emerged late in the 16th century.”
HISTORY OF HEARSES DURING ANCIENT TIME
Before horse-drawn hearses were in extensive use, a bier – a flat, frame platform that resembled an ambulance stretcher is used as a carrying device to transport remains to its final resting place. The remains, wrapped in a shroud, or the coffin was placed on the bier and carried by hand to the grave. The biers usually had handrails along either side, so the mourners could easily take the bier to the burial place.
Funeral biers can be traced back to ancient times. Bier’s are even mentioned in the holy bible. According to Scripture, a bier was used to lay the corpse after being presentable for the loved one.
After saying their last goodbyes before burial, they would transport the remains from the residence to the burial site using the bier, just like the modern hearse.
Biers become known as hearse because it’s used to transport the body or coffin to the grave. For thousands of years, the biers served as the device of proper burials, especially in religious settings for the priests, monks, and other spiritual figures.
Biers are still used today, but they are made from different materials, and wheels are attached for mobility. Biers is also called a church truck, used for moving the casket from the funeral home to the church. Head of state and dignitaries are put on biers to lie in state before the funeral service is held.
17TH CENTURY AND 18TH CENTURY
Early biers had no side walls or covering, but as the years went by, more elaborate hand-drawn biers come into style. As a result, the flatform becomes heavy, and it is necessary to add wheels to make transportation easier.
Until the 1600s, funeral rites were carried out in biers with wheels. The horse-drawn carriage was also introduced at that time. The biers are drawn by horses rather than mourners and push on wheels to carry the coffin to the gravesite.
During the 17th century, people began calling the horse-drawn carriages that brought a coffin to the burial site as hearses. This time, it became less practical to carry the bier by hand, so horse-drawn hearses were used and stayed for a very long time. The horse-drawn hearse became the default funeral coach for over 300 years.
In the earlier part of the 1800s, hearses are designed to envelop the caskets inside. There are decorations and carvings, sometimes they use lanterns for lighting.
During this time, hearses were made from mahogany wood and other hardwoods. Carved wooden hearses heavy ornamentation could be seen carrying the wealthy to their grave.
In 1850, Crane, Breed & Company from Cincinnati began producing metal caskets and horse-drawn hearses. Metal hearses later came into use at the same time that metal caskets were being produced.
In the 1880s, there was explosive growth in the design and functionality of the hearse. Many companies produced highly decorative coaches with windows, poles, decorations, more use of metal – leading to the total transformation of the funeral coach.
At the time, the popular Rockfalls Hearse was created in Sterling, Illinois, and spread by Samuel D, Aultman, the founder of Ferguson Funeral Home in Scottsdale, Arizona. One of the few funeral homes that are still in business since the days of the horse-drawn hearse.
The growth in the innovation of the hearse opened to the invention of the tram hearse in the late 1800s. Tram hearse is a hearse on rails used to carry the casket and the mourners to the cemeteries located at the end of town.
A tram was used as a hearse to transport bodies via railway. The cities of Chicago and Baltimore each designed tram funeral cars, which ran on electric trolley railways.
It was at the beginning of the 20th century when hearses have tremendous updating. Motorized vehicles were used as hearses. The General Vehicle Company of New York introduced the first electric hearse on May 1, 1908.
By 1909, the Auto Hearse, the first motorized mass-produced funeral coach was introduced by Crane and Breed. It was the first gasoline-powered hearse. As a result, hearses are now powered by fossil fuels.
The first fully motorized funeral procession happened in 1909 at the funeral of Wilfrid A. Pruyn, a Chicago cab driver. The undertaker who commissioned the vehicle was H.D. Ludlow. The hearse was constructed out of a body of a horse-drawn hearse atop a bus chassis. It was built by C.A Coey Auto Livery Company. This motorized hearse becomes popular with the wealthier customers of the funeral home.
Ludlow’s motorized hearse innovation became popular with the public, but most funeral directors found it too expensive. The motorized hearse cost $6,000 each while a horse-drawn hearse is only $1,500. But, as the internal combustion engines became more powerful and the prices dropped, funeral directors adopted gas-powered hearses. It became the trend by the 1920s.
The Ludlow motorized hearse ran 30 mph or 48 kilometers per hour, which is fast on those days. This four-cylinder engine generated 30 horsepower and used a three-speed transmission. Other companies soon began manufacturing their own hearses. These gasoline-driven hearses adopted the boxy design of the horse-drawn carriages.
Sayers and Scovill introduced the landau-style hearse in 1938s. This sleek, limousine-like form remains popular today. Landau means carriage bars that can fold and unfold. It was adopted to the hearse creating a semi-convertible where the rear of the hearse could be opened by folding the cover at the landau joints.
During the 1930s, the horse-drawn hearses were replaced by motorized hearses. Three-way coaches were also introduced; it allowed the casket table to move for loading and unloading from either side of the car or through the back door. This style of the hearse was made in the late 1940s.
WORLD WAR II
Motorized hearse production was on the rise when World War II broke out, and hearse factories were converted for wartime production. By the end of the war, many motorized hearse companies have experienced bankruptcy and were forced to close.
After WWII, the limousine and landau-style hearses were both popular.
Draperies become sleeker, and intricate draping went out of style. During the 1970s, there was a downsize to hearses because of the gasoline crisis.
Until the end of the 1970s, it was common for a hearse to be built on combination chassis. The professional framework was constructed to serve as a hearse and an ambulance. The back compartment was then fitted to carry a casket or a temporary bed. It is called “combination cars” and was used in small towns and rural areas.
No major American automobile manufacturer builds funeral coaches at the factory. Neither Ford, General Motors, or Chrysler has a hearse division. In fact, most hearses are manufactured by customizing existing cars.
Hearse makers us parts from companies like Buick, Cadillac, and Lincoln. They make them longer and more functional. The electrical system is removed, the car is then cut in half and put to a longer chassis. Then a molded fiberglass is overlaid to reconnect the two parts, painted and assembled to resemble the hearse.
Some internal and external features are built to the hearse. A long platform is put inside to hold the casket with rollers so that the coffin can slide in and out of the rear doors. Bier pin plates are added to secure the coffin in place so it won’t roll while the hearse is moving. Drapes are also put on the windows.
Most hearse builders favored the Cadillac commercial chassis because it’s longer, and it has the strengthened long-wheelbase limousine frame to carry the extra weights of bodywork and cargo.
The Cadillac hearses were delivered as incomplete cars to hearse builders for final assembly. Most Cadillac based hearses have been constructed from customized Cadillac sedans since the late 1990s,
The Ford Motor Company sells Lincoln Town Car to coachbuilders with a special “hearse package.” They are shipped without a rear seat, rear window, or decklid, and no rear interior trim. The hearse package also features upgraded, brakes, suspension, charging systems, and tires.
The limousine-styled hearse is more popular in the U.S. There are two common styles of hearse bodywork. One style has opaque rear panels where the coffin can barely be seen, and the other has narrow pillars and large windows that reveal the casket. The windows are frosted or opaque without the curtains.
The hearse was downsized again at the end of the 1990s, and today some modern vans have been converted into funeral hearses. Today, the landau style is still popular, some have leather or a vinyl roof with the faux S-shaped bars, and drapes at the windows.
The modern hearse is a luxurious, fully-featured automobile. The average cost of a brand-new hearse is around $80,000. The hearse had evolved from basic stretches and biers to become an industry for paying respects to the dead.
The largest funeral coach manufacturer in the United States today is Accubuilt, Inc., located in Lima, Ohio. Over the years, a number of major coach manufacturers have merged with Accubuilt. These include Miller-Meteor, Eureka, and Super Coach.
Even Sayers and Scovill, a company that’s been in the funeral business for over one hundred years, has joined the company. Currently, Accubuilt builds 60% of the hearses used at American funerals.
When former President Ronald Reagan died in 2004, Accubuilt supplied the hearse for the funeral procession. Other hearse makers in the U.S. include Binz Hearses and Wolfington Body Company. Binz uses the Mercedes-Benz chassis to build hearses.
The modern hearse uses customization from niche private hearse collectors. You will find hearses with spokes, loudspeaker systems, and hydraulic lifts. Some bikers even made hearses into motorcycles.
Others designed hearses as party wagons used to tailgate in support of their favorite sports team. The hearse industry has spawned several subcultures, from car clubs to low-rider events.
The hearses have become an object of fascination. People collect them and take them to classic car shows. People drive around town in them and enjoy telling scary stories about them too. There are ghost stories and few regional legends about hearses.
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