Most of us learned that song when we were kids. Its origins seem to be lost to history and (if Google can be trusted), there are dozens of versions of the lyrics, but they all seem to begin with a line about a hearse. In Western culture, hearses are among the most readily identifiable symbols of death. A hearse is the car you're going to take your last ride in, and sadly, for a lot us, it may be one of the very few rides we'll ever take in a limo-like vehicle. Is it any wonder that hearses have become an object of fascination? People collect them, drive around town in them, take them to classic car shows and enjoy telling scary stories about them, too. There are even ghost stories about hearses and a few regional legends in which they're prominently featured.
Yet most of us know very little about them. How are hearses made? (Here's a hint: It involves sawing a perfectly good car in two.) How long have hearses been around? (Modern motorized hearses came into existence about a century ago.) What kind of cars are they typically made from? (Cadillac and Lincoln are among the most popular hearse donor vehicles.) How much do they cost? (Let's just say, if you have to ask, you probably can't afford one.)
In the rest of this article, which really should be called, "Everything You Ever Wanted to Know about Hearses but Were Afraid to Ask," we'll look at hearses in greater detail. We'll learn their history, walk through the manufacturing process and tell a spooky story or two along the way.
So what are you waiting for? Turn the page and find out more. You're not scared, are you?
A Brief History of Hearses
In the funeral industry, a hearse isn't usually called a hearse. It's referred to as a funeral coach. Funeral directors find that term a bit more dignified and a little less frightening than the more familiar word. In this article, however, we'll continue to refer to these vehicles as hearses, because that's how most of us know them. The word "hearse" comes from the Middle English "herse," which referred to a type of candelabra often placed on top of a coffin. Sometime in the 17th century, people starting using the word to refer to the horse-drawn carriages that conveyed the casket to the place of burial during a funeral procession.
Hearses remained horse-drawn until the first decade of the 20th century, when motorized hearses began to appear. Nobody's quite sure what year these motorized hearses were first put into use, but it was most likely between 1901 and 1907. Here's another interesting piece of info: The first hearse motors were electric. The first hearse built with an internal combustion engine didn't appear until 1909, at the funeral of Wilfrid A. Pruyn. The undertaker responsible was H.D. Ludlow, who commissioned a vehicle to be built out of the body of a horse-drawn hearse and the chassis of a bus. This new type of hearse was quite popular with the funeral home's wealthier customers and Ludlow used it for 13 more funerals before replacing it with a larger model.
Ludlow's innovation may have been popular with the public, but most funeral directors found motorized hearses too expensive -- about $6,000 per hearse. A comparable horse-drawn hearse of that period would have cost about $1,500. But, as prices dropped and internal combustion engines became more powerful, those same funeral directors realized that speedier hearses would mean more funerals per day. So, despite the extra cost, gas-powered hearses became the norm by the 1920s.
In the same year that Wilfrid A. Pruyn was buried, the Crane and Breed Company of Cincinnati, Ohio, became the first manufacturer of hearses. Their vehicles purred along at a brisk 30 mph (48 kilometers per hour), fairly fast in those days for a car of any kind. The four-cylinder engine generated just 30 horsepower and used a three-speed transmission. Other companies soon began to offer hearses of their own. These first gasoline-driven hearses imitated the boxy design of the horse-drawn variety, but in the 1930s the longer, landau-style hearse was introduced by Sayers and Scovill, and its sleek, limousine-like form remains popular today.
It was not uncommon in the early and middle parts of the 20th century for hearses to serve as both funeral coach and ambulance, depending on the immediate need that the community had for them. Such vehicles, once common in small towns, were known as combination coaches. Regulations for ambulances became stricter after the 1970s, however, and now it's rare for one vehicle to serve in both roles.
So how are hearses made? We'll look at that subject on the next page.
How Hearses Are Built
No major American automobile manufacturer builds hearses at the factory. General Motors has no hearse division. Neither does Ford or Chrysler (or, for that matter, Honda, Mazda, or Toyota). Instead, most hearses are hand-crafted by companies that take the bodies of existing cars and customize them, making them longer and adding special purpose parts. Let's look at how this process works.
Although the ambulance industry moved several decades ago to using trucks as their base vehicle, hearse makers prefer to use luxury cars from companies like Cadillac, Lincoln and Buick. To turn a luxury car into a hearse, the electrical system and all vital fluid lines are removed and a circular saw is used to cut the car into two halves, a front half and a rear half. These two halves are then fitted onto a longer chassis, often supplied by the original manufacturer, and overlaid with a molded fiberglass shell that connects the front half with the back half. The shell is painted to match the rest of the vehicle, the electrical system and fluid lines are reattached and now the car resembles what we think of as a hearse. But the custom-build isn't quite that simple.
A number of internal and external features are added in the process, too. A long platform is placed inside to hold the casket. This platform has rollers on top of it so that the casket can slide in and out through the rear doors. Bier pin plates allow the casket to be secured in place so that it won't accidentally roll while the hearse is in motion. Drapes are also placed on the windows that run the length of the coach. These come in two different styles: formal drapes, made from a velvet-like material and hung in arches, like the curtains on the sides of a proscenium-style stage; and airline drapes, which hang straight down for a more modern look. The latter style is the newer of the two styles, having first appeared in the 1950s.
The largest manufacturer of hearses in the United States today is Accubuilt, Inc., of Lima, Ohio. Over the years a number of major hearse makers have merged and are now part of Accubuilt. These include Superior Coach, Eureka, Miller-Meteor, and Sayers and Scovill, names that will be instantly recognizable to anyone interested in funeral coaches. Accubuilt currently builds 60 percent of the hearses used at American funerals. In fact, Accubuilt supplied the hearse for the 2004 funeral of former President Ronald Reagan as well as the limousines for his funeral procession. Other hearse makers include Wolfington Body Company and Binz Hearses. The latter builds hearses on the Mercedes-Benz chassis.
So, how much do handcrafted hearses cost? Well, if you must know, they're in the neighborhood of about $60,000. Like we said earlier, if you have to ask, you probably can't afford one, at least not a new one, anyway. On the next page, however, we'll look at people who are quite happy to buy their hearses used.
Hearses and other professional cars (a category that includes ambulances, limousines, and funeral flower cars) recall a time when most cars were large, luxurious and occasionally even handcrafted. These cars have a kind of mystique to them -- an air of glamour and mystery -- and as we all know, any car that's glamorous or mysterious will attract collectors. And yet, until the 1970s, hearse collectors were somewhat difficult to find. Maybe it's because the idea of a privately owned hearse seemed just a little too morbid or a little too odd? But that didn't stop everyone.
About 35 years ago, the Professional Car Society was formed to bring attention to these vehicles and remind people how beautifully crafted they are. Gregg D. Merksamer, author of Professional Cars: Ambulances, Hearses and Flower Cars, suggests that the society was able to overcome the stigma surrounding hearses by forbidding any display of caskets, skulls or other spooky artifacts at auto shows and club functions, emphasizing instead what wonderful pieces of automotive memorabilia these vehicles truly are.
Whatever the case, the collecting of hearses has caught on among automobile enthusiasts. In addition to the Professional Car Society, organizations like the National Hearse and Ambulance Association and the Last Ride Hearse Society have sprung up, as well as local groups like the Denver Hearse Association and the Tomb. Clearly not all hearse clubs are afraid of associating the vehicles with spooky images. Celebrity hearse enthusiasts include rock singer Neil Young, who at one time used a 1948 Buick hearse to transport his equipment to concerts. Similarly, Domingo "Sam" Samudio of the 1960s rock group, Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs (best known for the song "Woolly Bully"), used a 1952 Packard hearse as an all-purpose equipment vehicle.
Up next, we'll take a look at some of the unusual stories and legends that have grown-up around hearses.
It's hardly surprising that hearses figure prominently in scary stories and local myths. What's surprising is that one of these myths -- an urban legend, really -- concerns a well-known attraction at Disneyland, in Anaheim, California. Or maybe it's not so surprising after all, given that the attraction in question is the Haunted Mansion.
Disney's Haunted Mansion is a ride that takes the visitor through, as the name implies, a haunted house. There are lots of fun details for the visitor to look at, including one outside of the attraction: an old-fashioned horse-drawn hearse that sits ominously in the mansion's
front yard. Somehow a legend
arose that the hearse chosen by the Disney Imagineers was 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 and it would be very odd, to say the least, if his hearse ended up at Disneyland.
And, in fact, it isn't Brigham Young's hearse at all -- although this urban legend is a persistent one. Snopes.com, the popular urban legend-debunking site, points out that this hearse can't possibly have been used at Young's funeral, mainly because there wasn't a hearse at Young's funeral! His casket was hand-carried by pall bearers to its final resting place. Nobody, however, seems to know where the hearse at Disneyland came from, although it does seem to be a genuine 19th century hearse.
Some other hearse legends:
People who live in the northern section of Summit County, Ohio, claim that if you get too close to a house on a local dead-end street, an old man in a hearse (presumably a ghost) will chase you down a dirt road. Historians say that there really was a family in the area at one time that owned a hearse, but it's unlikely that anybody chases anybody down this particular road because the area is too filled with trees for a car to get through.
At the Archer Woods Cemetery near Chicago, Ill., a team of ghostly horses towing a phantom hearse occasionally appears in the night, seriously frightening (if not actually harming) those who claim to have seen it. The story of the horses and the ghostly hearse is part of a cycle of ghost stories concerning the cemeteries in this region and the restless spirits buried there.
Sleepy Hollow Road in Louisville, Ky., is the scene of several modern ghost stories, one of which concerns a mysterious black hearse that follows cars in the area, causing them to run off the road and fall off a cliff.
It seems that as long as hearses are a part of funerals there will be eerie stories told about them, as well as people who are fascinated by them. It's difficult to not have strong emotional feelings concerning anything that has to do with death. Including hearses. So remember:
For more information about hearses and other related topics, follow the links on the next page.
Related HowStuffWorks Articles
More Great Links
- Gravatte, Jay. "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow." The Louisville Ghost Hunters Society. (March 26, 2009) http://www.louisvilleghs.com/LGHS_MASTER/SUB/Legends/Sleepy%20Hollow/Sleepy_Hollow.html
- Merksamer, Gregg D. "Professional Cars: Ambulances, Hearses and Flower Cars." Krause Publications. June 2004.
- The Ghosts of Ohio. "Boston Mills -- Hell Town." (March 26, 2009) http://www.ghostsofohio.org/lore/ohio_lore_36.html