We dig death history here at TalkDeath. In the past we have covered a variety of death focused history, such as the history of death rituals and the history and facts about embalming. Today we want to explore another death ritual: the hearse. Hearses are used across the world from the United States to Japan. In this article we will be focusing primarily on the North American and English evolution.
So why call it a hearse? A hearse is a vehicle used to carry a coffin. The name is derived through the French “herse”, from the Latin “herpex”, which means a harrow—a farming tool similar to a rake or pough. So how did we go from harrow to hearse? Around the time of this etymological evolution, coffins were topped with a spiked metal framework that would hold candles. It is commonly believed that because these spikes resembled that of a harrow the word grew to refer to a vehicle that transports the dead. In the death care industry it is more commonly called a Funeral Coach. A title that is a bit more formal, and a little less spooky and macabre.
In North American culture, hearses are among the most identifiable symbols of death. And for many places around the world, it is the last car you will ever ride in. So without further adieu, join us for the ride as we take you down the winding roads of the history of the hearse!
Driving the Dead, A History of the Hearse
The Origin of the Hearse
Before we had hearses, most people used hand-drawn carts called biers. In fact, they are often still used today and are made out of light metal with some designs that can collapse for easy transportation in—you guessed it—a hearse! These can also be called “church trucks” in their more modern usage.
Turns out the origin of the hearse is not so straight forward. Like many evolutions throughout human history, the history of the hearse goes on a more twisty and turny road before landing on the modern classic look we all know and love. According to most sources, the hand-drawn bier evolved into horse-drawn carriages in the 17th century. Though biers are considered the most common form of transportation of the dead before this time, there is evidence of English royalty using horse drawn carts as early as 1468! One such piece of evidence is this incredible painting of the Funeral Cortege of Richard the II.
Here you can clearly see that the body is being carried in a horse drawn carriage during his funeral procession. But wait! There is more!
During the same century, Henry the VIII was not to be outdone and had three hearses that were said to be 14 feet tall and pulled by 8 horses each. What is even more fascinating is that these were made of wax! And when we say wax, we mean a ton of wax: between 1.1 and 1.8 tons to be exact! This was more common practice for royalty than you may think. It is thought that this is because it was faster and easier to mold and carve, but it also means that there is not a lot of physical evidence beyond drawings and paintings of that time period.
The closest visual representation we have to what King Henry’s hearses would have looked like is from the image below of the Funeral Procession of Bishop John Islip, 1532. Though this is not a royal hearse the illustration gives us the best indication of the scale and magnificence of Henry VIII’s hearses.
Unfortunately, these earlier horse-drawn hearses were only for the incredibly wealthy with everyone else using the more modest wooden biers to carry the dead.
As we move forward in time into the 17th century, we start to see people using horse-drawn hearses, as mentioned above. It was also around this time that the term hearse became more widely used. These horse-drawn carriages had built in frames that would prevent the coffin from slipping. They would often have glass at the sides, so you can see that the body was in there on its way to the graveyard. Just to make sure they were not escaping their final ride!
By the 19th century, there was the development of bier pins to help secure the casket in place, and rollers to help with the ease of movement. Most horse-drawn hearses would have 6 bier pins that were about 14 inches long and made of metal. This development would later be adapted into the motorized vehicles. Remember how we said the history of the hearse is a bit winding? Well, during times of war, people would revert back to biers since they were easier to maneuver on a battlefield. In fact, the biers used in the Civil War were some of the first that were used that had wheels that could turn.
Going back to the horse-drawn hearses, during this same era, the design becomes much more elaborate with heavy influences of the Victorian style of mourning. The Victorians knew how to bring the drama into mourning. This would last over the final decade of the 1800s. The craftsmanship was incredible, and each hearse was a work of art. Hearses were draped with heavy velvet curtains and carved with images of angels, doves, and even personalized decorations for those who could afford it. James Cunningham, Son & Co. based out of Rochester NY manufactured highly ornate horse-drawn hearses, which would be shipped all around the world.
The largest hearse was made in this era in 1895. It was built by a Czech master craftsman, named Vaclav Brozik, is over four meters high, 6.5 meters long, weighs in at almost 3 tones, and takes 8 horses to pull.
As a little aside, it should be noted that it is mainly Christian communities that enjoyed the flair of the dramatic in the craftsmanship of the horse-drawn hearse. Jewish hearses at the time were also horse-drawn, but more simplistic and modest in design.
In North America, the hearses began to become a bit less dramatic; still ornate with drapery, but with simpler carvings. This also meant they could be manufactured faster, and created more access for use. In 1850, the company Crane, Breed & Company of Cincinnati began producing metal caskets, and the accompanying horse-drawn hearses. Hearses would remain horse drawn until the first decade of the 20th century, with the exception of the creation of the Funeral Train in 1854.
We are now in the 20th century! The first motorized hearses were introduced to the United States in the early 1900s. On May 1, 1908, the General Vehicle Company of New York built its first electric hearse. The following year Crane & Breed introduced the first motorized mass produced funeral coach and dubbed it the Auto Hearse! These hearses were inspired by their horse drawn counterparts with a bulky square back. They had a four-cylinder engine generating 30 horsepower with a three speed transmission, rear wheel drive, chain driven, and went a whooping 30 miles per hour.
The same year Chicago had the first recorded automobile funeral for Wilfrid A. Pruyn, a Chicago cab driver. The undertaker responsible was H.D. Ludlow, who commissioned a vehicle from the Coey Auto Livery Company to be built out of the body of a horse-drawn hearse and the chassis of a bus. This was the beginning of the iconic hearse we all know and love today! Still a bit boxy in the rear, but we are not here to body shame.
By the 1920s, the gas powered engines became more popular to the general public, and funeral directors realized they could have more funerals a day if they had a motorized vehicle. It was also during this decade that the three-way hearses were introduced, which allowed the table in the back to rotate so the coffin could be loaded and unloaded from either side or through the back. In the following decade, the 1930s, the Art Deco movement had a stylistic influence on the hearse, in a similar way as the Victorians did. This is when we can find hearses that feature hand-carved wooden panels that were made to resemble those heavy dramatic drapes we were talking about earlier.
So what about the “classic” hearse we all think of today? Well this style was invented in the same decade by the company Sayers and Scovill. It is called the landau-style hearse and is sleeker in shape and design and looks closer to the luxury limousines. These vehicles have the extended leather, and later vinyl, roofs along with that signature ‘s’ shaped scroll on the back.
Fun fact! These are called landau bars that were originally part of older style vehicles that had semi-convertible tops. The landau bar was used to manually open and close these tops, and coachbuilders have kept this bar as a decorative addition to the modern hearse.
How a Hearse is Built
Believe it or not, there is no car company that officially makes hearses, but there are coachbuilders who specialize in constructing hearses. Hearses are often hand-crafted by taking the body of an existing vehicle, removing the gas and break lines, cutting it in half, extending the length, adding back the lines and building in all the features needed to carry the dead to their final resting ground. These features include rollers and bier pins in the back to move and secure the coffin for transport. There are two main styles: the opaque rear that is common in America, and the rear with windows that is more common in the U.K..
Cadillac and Lincoln are among the most popular hearse donor vehicles in North America. The Cadillac Commercial Chassis was the most popular type to be sent to coachbuilders, but was discontinued in 2019. S&S Coach Company now builds hearses based off of newer Cadillac models.
Though the style of hearse has not evolved much beyond the Landau style, there have been some interesting variations of the modern hearse over the years. Some of our favourites include, but are not limited to: the 1981 Airstream Funeral Coach, custom Volkswagen hearses made in England, and even motorcycle hearses! Vroom Vroom!
Custom hearses are still an option for many people, and can range from creative colours to modified nontraditional vehicles. The Duke of Edinburgh Prince Philip famously designed his own hearse from a modified Landrover.
Not all these designs are for practical uses, with many people collecting and designing hearses purely for the love of the aesthetic. Take the Seattle Barbie Hearse, which is used as a party bus and not as a final destination vehicle. Neil Young famously drove around in a 1948 Buick Roadmaster hearse he named Mortimer Hearseburg, or simply MortIn. In fact, there are many Hearse enthusiasts around the world who build, collect, and even race a wide variety of designs.
The Hearse of the Future
The future of death is green. This also applies to hearses! The electric hearse to be exact. In 2018, Jan Erik Naley, a Norwegian designer, converted a Tesla Model S into a hearse. A few years earlier, Van der Lans & Busscher Staatsievervoer, based out of the Netherlands, commissioned modified Tesla Model S hearses from RemetzCar. These hearses are said to be quite—dead quiet. Apparently, footsteps are louder than the driving hearse!
These were not the first electric hearses. Starting in 2011, Brahms in the U.K. began to build electric hearse models. Beginning with their original model of the modified Nissan leaf, and now the Tesla Model S. These electric models give more options to help attain a greener funeral.
What about self-driving hearses? Or self-driving hearses that have holographic projectors? You read that right. Imaginactive, a Montreal-based nonprofit, came up with a design for a self-driving hearse. Your final ride could be chauffeured by a ghost, with you in a glass coffin while holographic projections play along with music. What else could the future hold!?
The Hearse in Popular Culture
For our fellow macabre lovers, we can not take a drive through the history of the hearse without mentioning some pop culture highlights.
Our first example is the iconic ECTO-1 from Ghostbusters!
What better vehicle for a group of ghost hunters than a modified hearse! Fun fact: the earliest motorized vehicles were also used as ambulances. Fitting that in this film they are also used to capture the spirits of the dead! We still get chills when we hear the lines “Everybody can relax! I found the car!”
Next up is the horse-drawn hearse at Disney’s Haunted Mansion which is part of one of the more famous Disney urban legends. The myth is that the hearse chosen by the Disney Imagineers is the same hearse used at the 1877 funeral of Brigham Young, a prominent figure in Mormonism and former president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Young is an important figure to Mormons, but in fact did not have a hearse at his funeral. Though this myth has been busted, it can never be buried and people will still share the tale to this day!
In the death positive favourite movie Harold and Maude, Harold builds a hearse from a Jaguar XK-E, which is crashed at the end of the movie. Ken Roberts in California rebuilt this famous Jaguar Hearse!
We can’t make a list of hearses in pop culture without mentioning Claire’s trusty green beauty, a mid 1990s Cadillac Fleetwood Hearse. As a teenager I was told I looked and acted like Claire, from the series Six Feet Under, and also dreamed of owning my own hearse to drive through my angst filled teenage years!
And no one’s life, or death, is complete until you hear the hearse song from the children’s book Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark.
Thank you for coming along for the ride! Next time you see a hearse go by, you may not be the next to die, but you will be full of facts about its history and how it’s made!
Did we miss any of your favourite hearse moments in popular culture? Are you a hearse enthusiast and collector? Let us know in the comments below!