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National Museum of Funeral History
A wide variety of hearses are on view at the National Museum of Funeral History in Houston. Some of them date from the late 1800s! Back in those long-gone days, most of these conveyances were horse-drawn. Motorized vehicles did not yet exist.
Hearses From Bygone Days
In this post, you can take a look at some of these beautifully decorated carriages and learn something about them. Information is adjacent to these vehicles at the museum, some of which I will relate to you.
You can also see the vehicles in which Princess Grace, President Ronald Reagan, and President Gerald Ford rode to their final resting place. Enjoy the ride!
Oldest Restored Hearse in the U.S.
The belief is that this 1832 horse-drawn hearse is the oldest restored one in the country. Last used in 1926 in Cambridgeport, Vermont, the wheels are replaced with sleighs during the winter months.
This vehicle pictured above came from Mannheim, Germany. The restoration took place after arriving in Houston. Two horses pulled the hearse. Black horses indicated that the deceased was a man: white horses, a woman. The glass is acid etched.
This ornate carved wooden hearse pictured above is from the late 1800s. The roof cover is leather.
In the winter months, when snow blanketed the earth, horses could more easily pull the hearses over fields and other lands to the church or gravesite. These were the days before roads were other than rudimentary at best. There are several horse-drawn sleigh relics at the Museum of Funeral History. See below.
Origin of the Word "Hearse"
Long before funeral homes were the place where people used to gather to pay homage to the deceased, they were at home until the burial. In the early days before electricity, candles often illuminated the darkness. Candelabras often placed around or on top of a coffin were the norm.
This information is from "HowStuffWorks" as well as other sources. "Herse" was the name of that candelabra.
The spelling of the name "herse" eventually changed to "hearse." It took on the meaning of the horse-drawn carriages taking the caskets to the place of burial. Motorized hearses did not appear until the early part of the 20th century.
The 1880 Rockfalls Hearse above is a beauty! After restoration in 1992, what is still original are the coach lamps and interior drapery and felt.
"This four-passenger brougham, also called a "widow's coach," was the traditional lead vehicle behind the hearse in funeral processions."
Upon refinishing, the exterior structure is lined with fiberglass strengthening the body. Coach lamps are the originals. New upholstery duplicates the original and appears to change from black to green with the angle of viewing.
"Carpet-covered ember-filled foot warmers provided passengers respite from the cold Chicago weather. A speaking tube allowed communication with the driver. Beveled windows are raised and lowered by straps."
Robert L. Waltrip is responsible for many of these funeral conveyances on display in the museum. The 1888 Kimball Brougham is just one of many.
This children's white hearse from 1900 is courtesy of Juanita H. Rizzo, Houston, TX. Below is information about this one of a kind beauty.
This hearse was designed especially for children's funerals. It is smaller and is white instead of black. The conveyance was pulled by two men who wore black suits, gloves, and a tall hat like a wood stove pipe. Construction of this vehicle was done in St. Remi, Quebec, around 1900 by M.Arthur Bisaillon. Mr. Bisaillon was a craftsman who built hearses for adults and children.
The restoration took place in Alvin, Texas, and is about 5/8 the size of an ordinary horse-drawn hearse. It has a dome-shaped top with a cross in the center and glass-paneled doors.
Hearses Become Motorized
Today there is an effort to make more of our cars run on electricity instead of gas. Believe it or not, the very first motorized hearse was electric! By the 1920s, gas-powered vehicles became the norm. During Prohibition, sometimes bootleggers successfully hid their liquor and transported it in hearses. Police officers at that time were less likely to want to stop and inspect items in that type of vehicle.
The 1916 Buick Sayers Et Scovill hearse pictured above has a 40-horsepower Buick Superior six-cylinder engine. The sides of this vehicle are hand-carved oak that looks like drapery. There is a double-decker interior consisting of Philippine mahogany that accommodates a casket below with flowers above.
The 1916 Packard Funeral Bus has a fascinating history.
The only surviving funeral vehicle of its kind, this bus was built by Fifth Avenue Coach Company in New York City and was originally mounted on a Kelly truck chassis. Expected to partially supplant the traditional, lengthy funeral procession, the bus held the casket, pallbearers, and 20 mourners.
Initially owned by a San Francisco funeral home, this vehicle was climbing uphill to a cemetery when the weight in the aft section caused the bus to tip back. Pallbearers tumbled over mourners, and the casket overturned. The embarrassed funeral director removed the bus from service and from its chassis. For the next 40 years, a ranch hand called the funeral bus "Home."
When a California funeral director discovered the bus, he had it remounted on a Packard chassis. Current owner Robert Larrabee returned the bus to running condition. Otherwise, it remains unretired. The tires are original to the bus and are made of hard rubber. Windows and interior design are of the Art Nouveau period. Radiator and headlamps are brass. It has a Packard four-cylinder engine, which was made for trucks and automobiles, and a three-speed progressive transmission. The Packard drive train permits speeds of up to 10 to 12 miles per hour.
Courtesy of Robert D. Larrabee Merchant Funeral Home Clarkson, Washington 1992
As you can quickly see by looking at the 1921 Rockfalls Hearse, much craftsmanship went into the hand-carving of this beauty. Six types of wood are a part of the body panels of this vehicle. It has a 29-horsepower Continental "Red Seal" engine.
The 1924 Ford Model TT Hoover hearse, similar to the one above, has two levels, one to hold the casket, and the other to carry the funeral flowers. The double "T" indicates a commercial truck. It has a four-cylinder engine and is in excellent running condition.
Studebaker was one of the first manufacturers to use hydraulic brakes, and this vehicle retains the original, according to a posted sign next to it.
In 1938, the Henney Motor Company of Freeport, Illinois, became America's exclusive supplier of professional vehicles on a Packard commercial chassis and introduced its first Flower Cars. When new, this attractive Henney-Packard offering retailed for $2,036 and was one of the most popular flower cars in America.
Notice the side-mounted spare tire in the photo above. Arnold and Fred Veile of the Worland Furniture Company bought this vehicle for $2,500.00. At the time, their funeral home was in the basement of the furniture company. It has a Cadillac 332 cubic inch V-8 engine.
Courtesy of David Veile Worland Wyoming
Limousine-like styling, which began in the 1930s, is still fashionable today. Landau bars, an ornamental feature, are commonly seen on hearses today.
Manufacturers of Hearses
No automobile company makes hearses from scratch. The manufacturers of modern-day hearses take existing bodies of cars and customize them. They often cut them in half, lengthen them, and add other custom features.
At one time, several manufacturers were doing this, but over time, mergers have taken place. Presently, the largest manufacturer of these vehicles in the United States is Accubuilt, Inc. of Lima, Ohio. They have about 60% of the U.S. market.
The majority of the car parts come from Cadillac, Lincoln, and Mercedes. The average price is currently $60,000 and up for a newly built hearse.
Japanese Ceremonial Hearse
This hearse is the type of vehicle typically used in Japan for Japanese-style funerals. It transports the casket from the home to the crematorium with the family accompanying it. A music system with speakers mounted on the outside plays music during the funeral procession. The casket goes on the roof of the vehicle, which is ornately hand-painted with flowers and other designs resembling a Buddhist temple.
The cost (in 1995 dollars) for this modified 1972 Toyota Crown Station Wagon was approximately $140,000.
In the early days and even up to the middle part of the 20th century, especially in small rural areas, hearse-type vehicles sometimes were ambulances, depending upon the need. After the 1970s, regulations took place, which had more strict rules as to the use of these vehicles.
In the one shown above, the enterprising owner advertised his other line of work.
Fit for a Princess
This 1973 Mercedes hearse on display was used in the funeral of Princess Grace of Monaco on September 18, 1982. The vehicle delivered the coffin of Princess Grace to the castle. She now lies in a Crypt owned by the Grimaldi's family inside of the Cathedral.
The Last Ride
While hearses are typically transporting caskets to services and cemeteries, some people use them for other purposes. Some auto enthusiasts started collecting these luxurious, hand-crafted vehicles to add to their collections. A few singer celebrities have repurposed these vehicles to transport their equipment to concerts.
If you like the photos and information in this article, be sure to visit the National Museum of Funeral History to learn much more. These photos and the data only capture a small fraction of what is there. The address is 415 Barren Springs Drive, Houston, Texas 77090-5918.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2020 Peggy Woods