Why do we call it a Hearse?

The fall holiday season is upon us and its time to acknowledge how creepy the fall is. The leaves are turning, the wind is blowing and the days have grown short. If you live in the Pacific NW like our editor, this is the beginning of the rainy season, although this year the weather has been nothing to complain about.

We kick off the holidays with Halloween and in the spirit (pun intended) of the season, we grabbed a topic we really couldn’t cover any other time of the year.

Why do we call it a Hearse?

Well for starters, not everyone does. In some countries they call it a funeral car or funeral coach. A hearse is a vehicle specifically designed to carry coffins or caskets, particularly coffins that contain human remains.

Side Note: a Casket is a box for human remains and can be any shape, a Coffin has the traditional shape with five sides, narrower at both ends (foot and head) and wider at the torso.

The practice of transporting human remains, naturally, goes back before we had cars. Originally, horse drawn wagons were used. There are many examples of carriages made specific for the purpose, which were no doubt only owned by undertakers.

Ancient Hand-drawn Hearse

Before they were horse drawn, they were hand drawn or carried, which is about the time period the name Hearse originated. The word originally referred to an apparatus that raised above the body to hold candles. The device sat atop of pals, which were poles under the body which allowed the living to transport the dead without touching them. The whole contraption looked like a Harrow, or old school plowing device used to remove rocks from a field prior to planting.

To the modern eye it looks more like a hair brush but in the 1600’s they prepped their fields more than they brushed their hair. Long story short the French term for a harrow was herse, which gives us the modern term Hearse.

Side Note: Latin for Harrow, which would likely be the term behind any of the romance language countries, is herpex, so we can be glad that the term stopped by France on it’s way to modern USA.

Burial traditions vary widely around the world but in modern times most industrialized countries employ a type of Hearse. They fall into two basic styles, those that use tinting and/curtains to obscure the casket and those that have large clear windows displaying the casket.

In the US the limousine style with curtained windows are the most popular. We say popular not because the bereaved choose them, but because the owners of funeral homes pick what they think will work best and grieving people tend to just go with what’s offered.

Most funeral homes can’t afford to buy a vehicle that will sit around most of the time, so most funeral homes in a city will rent from a common motor pool, perhaps owned and operated by a third party. It’s not uncommon for that provider to be a limousine company since they are familiar with luxury vehicle maintenance and the rental market.

Interestingly, You can make a Hearse out of Any Vehicle!

Here are a few varied examples of alternate Hearses.

Here are a few varied examples of alternate Hearses.

Mercedes-Benz hearse with large rear windows
Chevrolet Silverado Hearse in Indianola, Mississippi

One of our favorites is this Hearse made from a motorcycle. Now this example uses a side car but same thing can and has been be accomplished with a trike or by pulling a trailer.

A hearse is seldom sent to pick up remains from a place where someone died. In many cases an ambulance is sent to transport someone to a hospital first as a person is not considered dead until a doctor declares them so and signs paperwork. Then the body is transported downstairs to cold storage to await instructions on who will claim the remains and which licenced funeral home will pick up the corpse.

In many cases, like when hospice has been visiting a person at home, a doctor may visit and declare a person dead prior to transport. In these cases, the kind of vehicle that would take remains from a hospital to a funeral home is sent to someone’s home. This is called a “First Call” vehicle and is generally a kind of van with very little markings.

Final Note

In large cities like London, Sydney, or Chicago a special train car takes remains and mourners from the city to the outskirts where graveyards are located. Some of these trains operate 3 to 4 times a week, but nearly all are operated by a special service that liaisons with the normal train service.

Hopefully this was a ghoulish enough post for your Halloween.

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