1. A vehicle for conveying a coffin to a church or cemetery.
2. Roman Catholic Church. A triangular candelabrum used at Tenebrae during Holy Week.
3. A frame like structure over a coffin or tomb on which to hang epitaphs.
[Middle English herse, a harrow-shaped structure for holding candles over a coffin, from Old French herce, from Medieval Latin hercia, from
Latin hirpex, hirpic, harrow, probably from Oscan hirpus, wolf (alluding to its teeth).]
Hearse (n): Death's baby-carriage.
Cemetery Culture: The Folklore of Death
Folk songs that American children learn either from their families or on the playgrounds deals with the gruesome subject of
decomposition. The song's origins go back to the 19th century, at least, when it was documented among British Soldiers
serving in the Crimean campaign. The catchiness of the melody and the rare opportunity to speak humorously about the ugly
side of death doubtlessly has ensured the ballad's survival into the 21st century. Like most folk songs, there is no definitive
version. Click here to visit Cemetery Culture: The Folklore of Death songs page, (This is an external link).
The noun hearse has one meaning: A vehicle for carrying a coffin to a church or a cemetery; formerly drawn by horses but now
usually a motor vehicle.
Funeral carriage, Museum of Funeral Customs. A hearse is a funeral vehicle, a conveyance for the coffin from e.g. a church to a
cemetery, a similar burial site, or a crematorium. In the funeral trade, they are often called funeral coaches.
A flower car is a type of vehicle used in the funeral industry, used to carry flowers for the burial service, or sometimes to carry
the coffin under a bed of flowers. Built on the same commercial chassis as a hearse, the flower car has half-height rear
bodywork on the rear similar to a pickup truck bed. The bed contains a liner to hold the flowers, normally built of stainless steel
so that it does not rust from the water. Some flower cars have a raised, flat tonneau cover across the bed at the top, upon which
the flowers sit; the center portion sometimes is designed to raise and lower, hydraulically or by hand. If the flower car is
designed to carry a casket, it will be stored under the tonneau cover in the space beneath, behind the opening rear gate.
In the early years of the automobile, open-topped luxury cars were used for this purpose, but as enclosed vehicles became the
norm, specially built vehicles began to be used for this purpose from approximately the 1930s onward. Not every funeral
provider owned a flower car; they were an added luxury item offered as an extra-cost option for extravagant funeral. The
quantities built were low; it is estimated that fewer than a dozen were built each year by each coachbuilder in the funeral market.
Flower cars are still built and used but in lesser numbers than previously. Old flower cars are considered quite collectible due to
their rarity, especially by collectors of hearses and other "professional cars".
First Call Vehicle:
The First Call Vehicle is a vehicle used in the funeral service industry. This type of vehicle is used to pick up the remains of a
recently deceased person, and transport that person to the funeral home for preparation. This initial pickup is called the "first
call", which is where the name of these vehicles come from. While some funeral homes will use their hearse for these initial
pickups, having vehicles available for first calls and just using the hearse for funerals helps save wear and tear on that vehicle.
Usually the vehicles used for this purpose are minivans. In some cases, funeral homes purchase minivans that have been
specially converted into first call vehicles by the same companies that produce hearses. In other cases, general purpose
work minivans are purchased. These minivans do not have the rear seats installed. For example, on the A&E show Family
Plots, the funeral home featured uses a plain white Chevy Astro type minivan for these pickups. When a regular work minivan
is used, a metal deck is purchased and installed in the van. These metal decks are generally available from funeral supply
companies, and are used to hold a stretcher or casket in place.
In the United States, larger SUV's such as the Chevrolet Suburban and Ford Excursion have also come into use; their large
wheelbase, pickup truck-derived chassis and larger displacement engines make them popular choices, well suited to their
purpose and requiring little alteration from the showroom floor. From the 1970's to the mid-1990's, full-sized station wagons
such as the Chevrolet Caprice, Buick Roadmaster and Ford LTD were popular options as well. Conversion on these ranged
from simply tinting or blacking-out the rear windows, and installing a metal deck (or sometimes, just bars) to hold the stretcher
or casket in place, to having the rear section done up as a landau and the installation of a casket tray, similar to a hearse. Many
of these vehicles are still in service around the country.
It is also not uncommon for older hearses to be employed as a first call vehicle; this often makes sense for the funerator when a
new hearse is purchased, as opposed to purhasing a second new vehicle outright.
The First Call vehicle is sometimes operated by an outside company that has contracts with various mortuaries and funeral
homes, rather than by the funeral homes themselves.
The name derives from the Old French herce "rake, harrow", describing the temporary framework on which candles were
placed above the bier. This also held banners and armorial bearings and other heraldic devices. Verses or epitaphs were often
attached to the hearse. Applied to vehicles since the 17th century.
Hearses were originally horse-drawn, but motorized examples began to be produced from 1909 in the United States and
became more widely accepted in the 1920s. The vast majority of hearses since then have been based on larger, more
powerful car chassis, generally retaining the front end up to and possibly including the front doors but with custom bodywork to
the rear to contain the coffin. Some early hearses also served as ambulances.
North America & Europe:
Normally more luxurious brands of car are used as a base; the vast majority of hearses in the United States are Cadillacs and
Lincolns. In Europe, Mercedes-Benz, Jaguar, Opel, Ford and Volvo are common contemporary bases and in the past, even
Rolls-Royce limousines were converted, though their cost is generally considered prohibitive. Cadillac produced what it termed
a "commercial chassis". This was a strengthened version of the long-wheelbase Fleetwood limousine frame to carry the extra
weight of bodywork, rear deck and cargo. Designed car use, the rear of the Cadillac commercial chassis was considerably
lower than the for professional passenger car frame, thereby lowering the rear deck height as well for ease of loading and
unloading. They were shipped as incomplete cars to coachbuilders for final assembly. A commercial chassis Cadillac was little
more than a complete rolling chassis, front end sheet metal with lighting and trim, dashboard and controls. Rear quarter panels
and sometimes the front door shells were shipped with the chassis for use in the finished coachwork. Today, most hearses are
made from converted sedans on stretched wheelbases. The fleet division of Ford Motor Company sells a Lincoln Town Car with
a special "hearse package" strictly to coachbuilders. Shipped without rear seat, rear interior trim, rear window or decklid, the
hearse package also features a heavy-duty suspension, brakes, charging system and tires and was once offered on a modified
Ford Expedition SUV chassis with the Triton V10 truck engine. Since the working life of a hearse is generally one of light duty
and short, sedate drives, hearses remain serviceable for a long time; hearses 30 years old or more may still be in service,
although some funeral homes replace them at least once a decade. As of 2004, a new hearse in the USA usually costs in the
range of $40,000 to $65,000. Two styles of hearse bodywork are common. The older style is the limousine style; these have
narrow pillars and lots of glass. These are more popular in the United Kingdom, among others. More popular in the United
States is the landau style, with a heavily-padded leather or (later) vinyl roof, and long blind rear quarters, similarly covered and
decorated with large metal S-shaped bars designed to resemble those used to lower the tops on some horse-drawn coaches.
It is common practice in the USA for the windows to be curtained, while in the UK the windows are normally left unobscured.
Hearses resemble station wagons strictly because of the shape of the rear ends of conventional ones. Until the late 1970s, it
was common for hearses in the USA to be combination coaches which also could serve in the ambulance role; these were
common in rural areas. Car-based ambulances and combination coaches were unable to meet stricter Federal specifications
for such vehicles and were discontinued after 1979.
In Japan, hearses can come in two styles: "Foreign" style, which is similar in build and style to an American hearse, or a
"Japanese" style, in which the rear area of the vehicle is modified to resemble a small, ornate Buddhist temple. This generally
requires the rear of the vehicle to be extensively altered; commonly, the rear roof is cut away from the front windows back and
all interior parts are removed from the rear as well. The ornate Buddhist-style rear area, generally constructed of wood and in
which the casket or urn is placed, is built on top of this empty cavity and most often is wider than the base of the vehicle, so that
it sticks out on the sides, over the rear body panels. Popular bases for these are not limited to large sedans, but also minivans
and even pickup trucks by companies like Nissan and Toyota. "Foreign" style hearses are mostly similar in appearance to their
US counterparts, although their exterior dimensions and interiors reflect the Japanese preference for smaller, less ornate
caskets (this in light of the national preference for cremation). This means that, in contrast to American hearses, the rear quarter
panels require less and sometimes no, alteration. These are generally built from station wagons such as the Nissan Stagea, or
from executive sedans such as the Toyota Celsior (Lexus LS430 in the US) and Nissan Cima (Infiniti Q45 in the US).
Interestingly, American market vehicles such as the Lincoln Town Car and Cadillac DeVille, which are otherwise fairly
uncommon in Japan, are often converted to hearses in both styles.
In recent times, the Motorcycle hearse has become more popular. This type of hearse is a motorcycle with a special sidecar
built to carry a casket or an urn. These hearses are often used during the funeral of motorcycle enthusiasts.
Perhaps owing to the morbid nature of the hearse, its luxurious accommodations for the driver, or both, the hearse has a
number of enthusiasts who own and drive retired hearses. Celebrity hearse enthusiasts include rock singer Neil Young and
double NASCAR Nextel Cup Champion Tony Stewart, who had his hearse customised for a television show into a play toy.
The 1971 film Harold and Maude features a unique Jaguar E-Type, converted to a hearse by its owner, Harold.
The 1984 film Ghostbusters famously features the "Ectomobile", a white 1959 Cadillac Miller-Meteor hearse.
In the TV series Six Feet Under, which is about a family that runs a funeral home, the character Claire Fisher drives a retired
hearse painted lime-green.
In The Nightmare Before Christmas, the Mayor is seen driving a "mayormobile," the only car shown in town, which is based on
A landau is a coachbuilding term for a type of carriage; the term has also been carried over into the automobile field, where it is
generally used to mean a simulated convertible.
A landau is a lightweight open carriage on elliptical springs, invented in the 18th century (first noted in English in 1743 and
named after the city of Landau in the Rhenish Palatinate, French at the time, where they were first produced. Lord, Hopkinson,
coachmakers of Holborn London, produced the first English landaus in the 1830s - Museum Victoria). A landau, drawn by a
pair or four-in-hand, is similar to a vis-à-vis, a social carriage with facing seats over a dropped footwell, which was perfected by
mid-19th century in the form of a swept base that flowed in a single curve. Double soft folding tops at front and rear ordinarily lie
perfectly flat but in a pinch can completely cover the passengers, latched at the center, with some loss of a graceful line. The
landau's center section might contain a fixed full-height glazed door, or more usually a low half-door. There would usually be a
separate raised open driver's upholstered bench-seat, but a landau could be positilion-driven and there was ordinarily a
separate groom's seat, sprung above and behind the rear axle, saving the groom from having to stand on a running board. The
landau reached its full development by the mid-19th century. It was purely a city carriage of luxury type. The low shell of the
landau made for maximum visibility of the occupants and their clothing, a feature that makes a landau still a popular choice for
Lords Mayor on ceremonial occasions.
A (simulated) landau bar on a 1967 Ford Thunderbird. A distinguishing characteristic of the landau carriage is the external
hinged supporting bars mounted on the outside of the folding top. When the top was up, these bars would lock into place,
forming an elegant shallow 'S' shape. The bars are variously known as landau bars, landau bows, landau irons or S-bars.
Many coachbuilding terms transferred over to automobile usage, since coachbuilders began making motor car bodies instead
and because customers were familiar with coachbuilding terms. The landau, however, was not a style that transferred well to the
automobile. A forward view was generally insisted upon by passengers, and so the half-landau landaulet style, instead of the
landau, became a more popular choice. The landaulet opens over the rear seats, but not the front. Some of these vehicles were
inaccurately described as "landaus". In the 1920s and 1930s, especially in the United States, the term "landau" became used
for a simulated convertible, in which a fixed roof of a sedan with solid rear quarters was covered with fabric or leather and fitted
with side landau bars to make it appear like a convertible top. This became the commonly accepted definition of 'landau' in
North American usage thereafter.
1950 Nash Rambler convertible Landau. After World War II, the term fell into disuse. However, landau became a model name
when Nash Motors introduced the Rambler in 1950. The new compact car was available during its first year of production only
as a "convertible landau". The Rambler's canvas top opened from the windshield header all the way to the back and stowed in
the trunk area. This unique convertible design featured steel framed roof rails around the car's side windows. The Rambler's
strong body structure eliminated the internal bracing that was normally needed on other open cars. Essensially it was a cabrio
coach. The landau description was revived during the 1960s. There was a trend for making "fake convertibles" by applying vinyl
roofs on regular cars. Some of these vehicles were called "landaus" by their manufacturers and many were fitted with landau
bars on the rear quarters. Some used the term "Town Landau" and this generally meant a wider rear pillar with no rear quarter
windows, or a partial vinyl roof that was applied only over the rear seat area (and is thus reminiscent of a town car). A landau
roof is also commonly used on the North American hearse; very long closed rear quarters, a vinyl roof and huge, polished
landau bars have been the preferred hearse style since before World War II.