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The History of the Hearse

Hearses have long been an ominous, yet solemn presence driving along city streets and country roads. The slow progression along the route to the funeral site demands respect as other drivers give way to the hearse and its parade of mourners. This vehicle has an interesting history that not many people are aware of.

The Early Hearse

Hearses were originally horse-drawn carriages. A framework was built around the coffin and placed on a flat cart, secured and decorated with epitaphs. One could easily argue that hearses actually began with biers, flat carts on which remains were placed and drawn by hand to a burial site, but the term hearse wasn’t officially used to describe a vehicle until the 17th century. Before that, ‘hearse’ (from the word ‘herse’) referred to a candelabra placed atop a casket at a funeral.

The Hearse Becomes Motorized

In the very early years of the 20th century, hearses became motorized. Despite the fact that motorized vehicles were still in their infancy, the first motorized hearse did not use an internal combustion engine – it was electric. In 1909, the first motorized engine hearse was made by fastening the framework of the original hearse onto the chassis of a bus. Although crude when compared to today’s hearses, it was the start of a new era in funeral practices.

The New Norm

By the 1920s, gas-powered hearses started being used regularly for transporting the body of the deceased. Even with the high cost of purchasing a hearse for use, the ability to transport a higher rate of bodies per day was enough for funeral directors to bite the bullet in order to service more customers, thus hiking their profits. Hearses were first mass-produced by Crane & Breed Co., and many companies followed suit.

The Landau Hearse

The 1930s brought with them a longer, sleeker style of hearse called the Landau hearse, manufactured by Sayers & Scovill. This style got its name from the S-shaped bars on the back of the vehicle. The Landau style was also used on other vehicles, but it only remained popular with the hearse and is still used today. It wasn’t uncommon in the early 20th century for hearses to be used as both transportation for the deceased and an ambulance when the occasion called for it. The latter part of the 20th century, with its stricter regulations for ambulances, effectively removed the second function of the hearse.

The Modern Hearse

A photo of MeadowLawn’s Hearse, photo taken at our new chapel at our Funeral Home, Crematory and Cemetery in San Antonio, Texas.

Today’s hearses are typically found in the limousine style in the United States, usually with unobstructed or semi-obstructed views of the interior due to its numerous windows. Features of modern hearses sometimes include track lighting, skylights and frosted windows, and these sleek vehicles have an average cost of around $80,000. That’s one expensive vehicle!

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