The History of the Hearse

Published: January 10, 2021
by James L. Donovan

Funeral transportation has changed a lot

Hearses play an important role in today's funeral processions, but do you know the origins of this unique car?

The word "hearse" actually comes from the Middle English word "herse", which meant placing a type of candelabra atop a coffin in ancient times. In the 17th century, though, the word became associated with the horse drawn carriages that transported the deceased to the burial grounds. Even later, the word "hearse" would come to mean the motorized funeral cars we're all familiar with today.

Hearses first became popular on the East coast rather than Midwest or West coast of the United States. Hearses were seldom seen west of the Mississippi in the early 1800's. At the turn of the 20th century, the first motorized funeral coach would be an electric vehicle. The first combustion engine hearse wouldn't be seen until an undertaker named H.D. Ludlow would commission one made out of the body of a horse-drawn hearse and the chassis of a bus. Gas powered hearses wouldn't become the norm until the 1920's when it became more affordable to own and operate a motor vehicle. Before this a hearse would cost upwards of $6,000 while a horse-drawn hearse would cost only $1,500.

With the rise in popularity of these new gas-powered coaches, the Crane and Breed Company of Cincinnati, Ohio would become the first manufacturer of the modern hearse. Their vehicle raced along with it's three speed transmission at a whopping 30 mph while it's four-cylinder engine generated just 30 horsepower. These hearses imitated the look of the horse drawn funeral coach but this design would soon go by the wayside in the 1930's. Sayers and Scoville, another hearse manufacturer, would go on to create and popularize the landau-style hearse. These hearses would be longer, sleeker, and appear to look more like a limousine. Up into the 1970's hearses would serve as both a funeral car as well as an ambulance for the local community.

No car manufacturer actually manufactures a hearse as you see it today. This process is taken on by a handful of specialized manufactures who undertake the long and arduous process. The base vehicle, most often a luxury car, will be purchased from the original manufacturer (Cadillac, Lincoln, etc.) and then cut in half by the hearse manufacturer. The chassis will be lengthened, molded with a fiberglass shell, painted, re-ran with wires and fluid systems, and rebuilt inside to house all the components to hold and transport a casket safely.

The history of the hearse is as interesting as the look of the vehicle itself. Please share with a friend if you learned something new!

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