What is a hearse? In the funeral history, a hearse is actually referred to as a funeral coach. The word hearse originated in Middle England, and was originally spelled “herse.” The word referred to a type of candelabra that was often seen to be placed on top of a coffin. As time went by, the word would start to refer to horse-drawn carriages that carried the coffin or casket to the place of burial during a funeral procession.
The first usage of the term herse in the funeral industry was from the 13th century. In this case, the hearse referred to a type of plow that held candles during a religious ceremony. Candles would also be placed on top of the coffin as the body was taken to its burial site. The very first type of hearse that was used for transportation of the body of the deceased was known as a bier. It was a framework upon which the coffin box would be placed. The body would be wrapped in a shroud or coffin box, and then placed upon the bier. Biers are still found today, but they are now made of aluminium instead of wood, and they have wheels. A modern day example of the use of a Bier was at the funeral of Pope John Paul.
The hearse then became horse-drawn in the 17th century as opposed to being hand held. It would then become known as a church truck. It was used to move the casket or coffin to and from the church, very much in the same was as it is used today. In the 19th century, the hearse would become more elaborate, and the wood used wood be carved with doves and flowers, and velvet drapes would be hung at the sides.
The wood used for elaborating a hearse in would generally be mahogany. In the 19th century, trolley funeral cars were also found in some states in the USA, these funeral cars running on electric trolley railways. This type of trolley would be used to transport the casket or coffin when the cemetery was located at the edge of or outside of a town.
It was in the early 20th century that the hearse would become motorized and would be updated. The first electric hearse was rolled out in New York in 1908. By the next year, 1909, the Auto Hearse was already in mass production. By the 1920’s the hearses used for funerals would begin to resemble the limousines that we see in the current day and age. By the 1920’s the casket could be loaded into the hearse from the side, or via the back door. This meant that it was easier to avoid mud on the street, the roads still not being paved in this era.
During the 1930’s, hearses would become art-carved in keeping with the Art Deco Movement of the time. During World War II, many factories where hearses were manufactured were converted for other uses, the end of the war showing a decline in hearse production. After the end of the war, the limousine style hearse that we are familiar with today began to increase in popularity.