Visit an Eye-Popping Collection of Hearses in Houston

Updated on May 7, 2020
Peggy W profile image

I live in Houston, and I have worked as a nurse. My interests include art, traveling, reading, gardening, cooking, and our wonderful pets.

Beautiful hearses at the National Museum of Funeral History
Beautiful hearses at the National Museum of Funeral History | Source

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!

1832 Horse-Drawn Hearse
1832 Horse-Drawn Hearse | Source

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.

Hearse, 1860
Hearse, 1860 | Source

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.

Hearse, the Late 1800s
Hearse, the Late 1800s | Source

This ornate carved wooden hearse pictured above is from the late 1800s. The roof cover is leather.

Horse-Drawn Sleighs

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.

Late 1800s Horse-Drawn Sleigh
Late 1800s Horse-Drawn Sleigh | Source
Another horse-drawn sleigh to transport a casket
Another horse-drawn sleigh to transport a casket | Source

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.

Rockfalls Hearse, 1880
Rockfalls Hearse, 1880 | Source

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.

Kimball Brougham, 1888
Kimball Brougham, 1888 | Source

"Widow's Coach"

"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.

Click thumbnail to view full-size
Children’s White Hearse, 1900 Back View of the Children’s White Hearse, 1900
Children’s White Hearse, 1900
Children’s White Hearse, 1900 | Source
Back View of the Children’s White Hearse, 1900
Back View of the Children’s White Hearse, 1900 | Source

Children's Hearse

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.

1916 Buick Sayers Et Scovill Hearse
1916 Buick Sayers Et Scovill Hearse | Source

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.

1916 Packard Funeral Bus
1916 Packard Funeral Bus | Source

Funeral Bus

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

1921 Rockfalls Hearse
1921 Rockfalls Hearse | Source

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.

1924 Ford Model TT Hoover Hearse
1924 Ford Model TT Hoover Hearse | Source

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.

1935 Studebaker Dictator Superior Hearse
1935 Studebaker Dictator Superior Hearse | Source

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.

1938 Henney-Packard Flower Car
1938 Henney-Packard Flower Car | Source

Flower Cars

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.

1939 Superior – LaSalle Mount Claire Hearse
1939 Superior – LaSalle Mount Claire Hearse | Source

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

1951 Superior – Cadillac Landaulet Hearse
1951 Superior – Cadillac Landaulet Hearse | Source

Landau Styling

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.

1972 Japanese Ceremonial Hearse
1972 Japanese Ceremonial Hearse | Source

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.

Old-time Hearse in the National Museum of Funeral History
Old-time Hearse in the National Museum of Funeral History | Source

Dual-Purposed Vehicles

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.

1973 Mercedes Hearse in Foreground
1973 Mercedes Hearse in Foreground | Source

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.

Presidential Funeral Hearse
Presidential Funeral Hearse | Source
Information next to the Presidential Funeral Hearse
Information next to the Presidential Funeral Hearse | Source

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.

Questions & Answers

    © 2020 Peggy Woods

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      • Peggy W profile imageAUTHOR

        Peggy Woods 

        3 weeks ago from Houston, Texas

        Hi Dora,

        Thanks for your visit and comment. While this subject may be a bit out of the ordinary, I found it to be fascinating. I am glad that you found it to be interesting.

      • MsDora profile image

        Dora Weithers 

        3 weeks ago from The Caribbean

        Never thought I would see such a fantastic presentation on hearses. They get a new respect from me. Thank you for making me aware of their history and significance.

      • Peggy W profile imageAUTHOR

        Peggy Woods 

        4 weeks ago from Houston, Texas

        Hi Lydia,

        Thanks for sharing this article on your facebook page.

      • Peggy W profile imageAUTHOR

        Peggy Woods 

        4 weeks ago from Houston, Texas

        Hi Bill,

        Thanks for your visit. These older hearses are beautiful pieces of art, as you mentioned. I think that you would enjoy a visit to this fascinating museum.

      • profile image

        Lydia Baehr 

        4 weeks ago

        Peggy, great article Thank you! We shared your post on the National Museum of Funeral History Facebook site

        https://www.facebook.com/108616709236095/posts/282...

      • bdegiulio profile image

        Bill De Giulio 

        4 weeks ago from Massachusetts

        Despite the morbid topic these are beautiful vehicles. I would love to visit and see these in person. I really like the old carriage and sleigh hearses, some of them are works of art. And when you consider the history of some of them I’m sure it makes for a fascinating visit.

      • Peggy W profile imageAUTHOR

        Peggy Woods 

        4 weeks ago from Houston, Texas

        Hi FlourishAnyway,

        The funeral museum is huge, and they do showcase things like embalming and many other things. It would be hard to showcase it all in just one post or do justice to it other than a mere mention with few images. I thought that it would be better to feature this one aspect of it because it is so educational, and the older hearses are so beautiful.

      • FlourishAnyway profile image

        FlourishAnyway 

        4 weeks ago from USA

        I loved this! The variety of old time hearses, particularly the coaches and sleighs were so beautiful (odd to say). My uncle was a funeral director and would have really loved this museum! What a neat place to visit. I wonder if they restrict their education to hearses only or get into embalming and funeral techniques and methods through the years.

      • Peggy W profile imageAUTHOR

        Peggy Woods 

        4 weeks ago from Houston, Texas

        Hi Ruby,

        There is something about the older hearses that appeal to me. The newer ones all seem to be more alike than different. Glad you enjoyed viewing them.

      • Peggy W profile imageAUTHOR

        Peggy Woods 

        4 weeks ago from Houston, Texas

        Hi Liz,

        I'll look forward to reading about Monaco when you have the time. Take care!

      • always exploring profile image

        Ruby Jean Richert 

        4 weeks ago from Southern Illinois

        Eye popping for sure. The children's hearse is beautiful, they all are. It's amazing how far we've come in just one generation. Well done Peggy!

      • Eurofile profile image

        Liz Westwood 

        4 weeks ago from UK

        My last visit was around 2011 I think, so I have some photos from then. Maybe one day I will get round to it. I have a lot of material but not enough time.

      • Peggy W profile imageAUTHOR

        Peggy Woods 

        4 weeks ago from Houston, Texas

        Hi Liz,

        If you get a chance, it would be so interesting to learn about Monaco from your impressions. Even if you did not take photos back then, you could probably find enough public domain images to illustrate your articles. I have always thought of it as a playground for the rich and famous.

      • Eurofile profile image

        Liz Westwood 

        4 weeks ago from UK

        Monaco is a very unique place. It has changed since I was there in the 1970s and 1980s. More land has been reclaimed from the sea. But it still retains a unique feel to it.

      • Peggy W profile imageAUTHOR

        Peggy Woods 

        4 weeks ago from Houston, Texas

        Hi Liz,

        Princess Grace was not only a beautiful woman but a classy lady. Your trips to the south of France and Monaco sound lovely. I am sure that the cathedral when Princess Grace is interred is lovely.

      • Peggy W profile imageAUTHOR

        Peggy Woods 

        4 weeks ago from Houston, Texas

        Hi Bill,

        Being curious about many different topics is a good thing, right? Ha! What I love about these hearses, particularly the old ones, is the beauty.

      • Peggy W profile imageAUTHOR

        Peggy Woods 

        4 weeks ago from Houston, Texas

        Hi Pamela,

        Thanks for your virtual visit to this fascinating museum. The old hearses are so beautiful. The care that went into the handcrafting of them is impressive to see. I never thought about sleighs being used, but it makes sense when in cold climates with snow-packed grounds.

      • Eurofile profile image

        Liz Westwood 

        4 weeks ago from UK

        This is a well-documented article about an unusual museum. My mother was a great fan of Princess Grace. It was a fairy tale story of her era. On annual holidays to the South of France we always had to fit in a visit along the coast to Monaco. Sadly one of our last visits there was to see Princess Grace's grave in the cathedral there.

      • billybuc profile image

        Bill Holland 

        4 weeks ago from Olympia, WA

        Kind of a weird topic, but I would love to see that collection. I'm fascinated by stuff like this.

      • Pamela99 profile image

        Pamela Oglesby 

        4 weeks ago from Sunny Florida

        These hearses are actually quite lovely. I never thought of even going to a museum that features the history of hearses. The ones for the snow are particularly attractive.

        I do not know why I would be surprised that there is a museum like this as it tells the historic tale of how we took care of the dead. Some of these hearses are quite attractive. Thanks for another view of history in Houston, Peggy.

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