What’s a Hearse for a Coffin at a Funeral?

Updated

If you’ve ever seen a funeral procession driving down the road, you’ve very likely seen a hearse. A hearse is a vehicle that transports a body in a coffin or casket to its final resting place. Hearses may be decorated or they may be incognito. 

Jump ahead to these sections:

We’ll go over the types of hearses you might encounter and their history in the funeral business. 

Hearse (Funeral Car) Defined

Hearses actually have a pretty fascinating history and have been in use a lot longer than you might think. Here’s some history on hearses and how they got their name.

History

Before hearses, you’d encounter biers, which were flat wooden platforms with wheels that could transport a coffin. Biers began being drawn by horses in the 1600s. 

In the early 19th century, hearses began to resemble their current form. They were still driven by horses but the coffins were encased in large decorative structures. These often featured intricate carvings, lanterns, and other ornamentation. In the 1880s, hearses became even more decorative.

The years 1908 and 1909 saw huge hearse innovations. On May 1, 1908, the General Vehicle Company released a hearse powered by electricity. A year later, Crane & Breed released the first-ever hearse powered by gasoline. These technical innovations inspired wild designs, including gargoyles or art deco features.

Many hearses from this era are still recognizable today. One example is the Landau hearse, memorialized in the movie “Ghostbusters.” Designs became soberer in the World War II era and then downsized again in the 1970s due to the gasoline crisis.

Etymology

The word “hearse” dates to circa 1300. It comes from the Old French word “herse” (alternatively spelled “herce”).

“Herse” also meant “harrow,” a large tool used to break up dirt clods and remove weeds in plowed land. It could also mean “portcullis,” a heavy, latticed grate usually found in castles and fortresses that blocks an opening. Finally, it could also refer to a large church chandelier or a flat frame carrying candles that hung suspended above a coffin. 

It wasn’t until about the 15th century that “hearse” began to resemble its modern usage. In this era, hearse referred to temporary frameworks constructed around dead bodies.  

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Types of Hearses

When you picture a hearse, you probably envision a sober black sedan retrofitted to carry a coffin in the back. But there are actually many different kinds of hearses.

They vary for a lot of reasons. Some hearses look a certain way for cultural reasons and others can be selected based on the personality of the deceased. Here are some of the more popular or well-known types of hearses. 

First call vehicle

Hearses generally transport a body from a funeral home to a grave or burial site. First, the body needs to go to a funeral home to be prepared for burial. A first call vehicle transports the deceased to the funeral home from his or her home, hospital, or hospice.

In other circumstances, the deceased may come from a morgue or coroner’s office. There isn’t any ceremonial significance attached to this leg of the journey, so the first call vehicle is often a converted minivan.   

Standard hearse

Hearses used today are sedan or limousine-style cars customized to transport coffins. Generally speaking, luxury automobile brands are used as the bases for hearses.

However, there are some variations in style depending on personal preference and geographical location:

North American hearse

Hearses in America are predominantly Cadillacs or Lincolns. Both brands have specific funeral cars available in their inventory. Cadillac offers a Commercial Chassis, a reinforced version of its limousine, which can sustain the weight of a casket. The Lincoln Town Car offers a hearse package that can be added by a professional coachbuilder.

American-style hearses tend to have opaque rear panels so that it’s difficult to see the coffin through the window. North American hearses often feature a padded roof made of leather or vinyl, as well as other ornamental elements.  

European hearse

In Europe, you’ll find a wider number of brands. They include Ford, Mercedes-Benz, Opel, Vauxhall Motors, Volvo, and even Rolls-Royce on some occasions.

European bodywork is often more open than the North American-style hearses. They feature large windows and narrow pillars which showcase the coffin inside. 

Japanese hearse

North American-style hearses are actually popular in Japan, though they’re referred to as foreign-style. There’s also a distinct Japanese-style hearse.

This features an ornate miniaturized Buddhist-style temple mounted onto the rear of the hearse. This requires far more modification than the North American and European-style hearses.

Motorcycle hearse

Motorcycle hearses have increased in popularity in recent years. They’re very popular as a personal touch as the last ride for a biker.

A standard two-wheel motorcycle can be retrofitted with a special sidecar to carry a casket beside the rider. Meanwhile, a three-wheeled motorcycle can carry a casket behind the rider.  

Cost of a Hearse

Hearses are just one of a number of funeral costs you’ll need to factor in when doing end-of-life planning. Here we’ll look into the costs associated with hiring a hearse for a funeral as well as the price of actually purchasing one. 

For a funeral

The cost of a hearse will depend on a variety of factors, including geographical location and how long you’ll be using it.

The base price typically ranges between $175 and $400. However, the funeral home may also charge mileage on top of that.  

To own

The cost of hearses can vary depending on what brand you purchase or whether you’re purchasing a hearse new or secondhand. Generally speaking, you can expect to spend between $106,900 and $119,000. As of 2016, the most expensive hearse in the world was the Rolls-Royce Phantom Hearse B12 for $640,000. 

Secondhand hearses also have a wide price range — between $35,000 to $45,000, depending on mileage and condition. Some people like to source older, decommissioned hearses for collecting. These have an entirely different pricing structure depending on availability and desirability. 

Hearses: Frequently Asked Questions

Still have some questions about hearses? Here are a few other popular inquiries that people have. 

How long is a hearse?

Hearses are generally about 20 feet long, though it may vary from brand to brand. The Rolls-Royce Phantom Hearse is the longest, at 23 feet long.  

Do you need a special license to drive a hearse?

You’ll need to obtain a commercial driver’s license if you’re driving a hearse commercially. This requires you to pass both a written and practical driving test. Special insurance is typically required as well. 

What is a hearse driver called?

Hearse drivers are, quite simply, called hearse drivers. They’re sometimes referred to as chauffeurs. 

What is the meaning of a black hearse?

Hearses in Western culture are typically black, the color of mourning. It’s the same reason people wear black clothing to funerals. Hearses in other cultures may be white, gold, or other colors.  

Last Ride

Hearses are used all over the world and vary depending on cultural influences. It can be the last vehicle you ever ride in, so take the time to research different options so you can plan to go out in your own personal style. 

If you're looking for more on funeral planning, read our guide on funeral alternatives and American funeral traditions.


Sources

  1. Paul, John. “Five Famous Hearses.” Historicvehicle.org, Historic Vehicle Association, 13 October 2015, www.historicvehicle.org/five-famous-hearses/.
  2. “Hearse.” Etymonline.com, Online Etymology Dictionary, www.etymonline.com/word/hearse.
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