When riding a bike around D.C., I’ve found out that you just never know what you’re going to see. And that applies particularly to vehicles. Some are large while others are small, and some are normal while others are just plain unusual. I recently happened upon this hearse while riding in northeast D.C., and I think the atypical funerary vehicle falls squarely within the unusual category.
The word “hearse” comes from the Middle English word “herse,” which was a type of candelabra frequently placed on top of a coffin. Sometime in the 17th century, people starting using the word to also refer to the horse-drawn carriages upon which caskets were often transported in a funeral procession. Hearses continued to be horse-drawn until the first decade of the 20th century.
Nobody’s quite sure exactly what year motorized hearses were first put into use, but it was most likely sometime between 1901 and 1907. Interestingly, it is believed that one of the first non-horse hearses had an electric motor, having been built by General Vehicle Company of New York. The first hearse built with an internal combustion engine didn’t appear until 1909, at the funeral of Chicago cab driver Wilfrid A. Pruyn. It was that same year that the Crane and Breed Company out of Cincinnati, Ohio, became the first mass producer of hearses.
Today, no major American automobile manufacturer builds hearses at the factory. General Motors has no hearse division. Neither does Ford or Chrysler, or other company for that matter. 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.
In addition to traditional vehicles, hearses these days sometimes have taken on various extravagant forms. Motorcycle hearses have started to be used in several cities. Funeral homes in a few cities have also experimented with trolley or subway car hearses, but the practice has not really caught on. Also appearing on the funeral scene are bicycle hearses. With companies and funeral homes that cater to these niche funeral crowds, these options are becoming increasingly popular as of late.
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.
The design and utility of hearses have also caused them to be adapted and used for other purposes as well. Because of their length, they have been popular with surfers for transporting their boards. And because of their size and storage capability, musicians have routinely used them for transporting their bands’ equipment. 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.
Eventually, the collecting of hearses caught on among automobile enthusiasts. People collect them, modify and decorate them, drive around town in them, take them to classic car shows and enjoy telling scary stories about them, too. In addition to the Professional Car Society, organizations like the National Hearse and Ambulance Association and the Last Ride Hearse Society have sprung up. Even if they have not been decorated or modified in some unusual way, hearses have become objects of fascination for many people.
Hearses are often referred to as funeral coaches within the funeral industry because the term seems more dignified and less frightening. But whether you call them funeral coaches, coffin carriages, body buggies, corpse caddies, one-way taxis, bone wagons, dead sleds, body Buicks, the Grim Reaper’s paddy wagons, weird woodies, deathmobiles, or just plain hearses, always be careful when one drives past you. And remember the admonition in the first lines of “The Hearse Song,” which are, “Don’t you ever laugh when a hearse goes by ’cause you might be the next to die.”