A Brief History of the Hearse
By: Good2GoPublished: November 2, 2016
At some point during your lifetime, you may have heard the phrase “Never laugh as a hearse goes by for you may be the next to die.” While we all know hearses are used to transport a casket from a church or a funeral home to a cemetery, few have stopped to think why such a vehicle even exists. So, here’s a quick history about where the hearse came from and why we use them today. We sincerely hope this article won’t bore you to death.
The word hearse is actually derived from “herse,” a Middle English term to describe the candelabra often placed on top of a casket. During the 17th century, people began referring to the horse-drawn carriages that brought a casket to the burial site as hearses. Although, professionals in the funeral industry prefer to call these vehicles “funeral coaches,” since “hearse” can be associated with something morbid and frightening.
The first motorized hearses started to appear in the first decade of the 20th century and quickly replaced its’ horse-drawn alternative. The Crane and Breed Company in Cincinnati, Ohio, was the first manufacturer of motorized hearses. At this point, the style was boxy and mimicked the aesthetics of a carriage. The landau-style hearse, which most of us are familiar with today, wasn’t introduced until the 1930s, when Sayers and Scovill developed the limousine-like design.
There aren’t any major American automobile manufacturers that build hearses in the factory. In fact, most hearses are built by companies who customize the bodies of existing cars, making them longer and more functional for their purpose. Typically, hearse makers prefer to use parts from companies like Cadillac, Lincoln, and Buick. The electrical system and all vital fluid lines are removed and the car is cut in half, fitted onto a longer chassis, and then overlaid with a molded fiberglass to reconnect the two parts. This “franken-vehicle” is then painted and doctored up to resemble the hearse.
Of course, there are other bells and whistles added to hearse to make them more functional. There are rollers to make it easier to slide the casket into the back, pins to secure the casket, and drapes placed on the windows.
The largest hearse manufacturer in the United States is currently Accubuilt, Inc. located in Lima, Ohio. A number of major hearse makers have merged together and are now a part of Accubuilt, which currently builds 60 percent of the hearses used today. Even Sayers and Scovill, a company that’s been in business for one hundred and forty years, has joined forces with Accubuilt.
A handcrafted hearse costs around $60,000, but that doesn’t stop collectors from buying used versions to restore. The hearse is celebrated by automobile enthusiasts as a beautiful work of craftsmanship, and is often put on display at auto shows. Groups like the National Hearse and Ambulance Association and the Last Ride Hearse Society have sprung up across the nation to shed some light on the hearse’s history.
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