Almost as iconic as the coffin itself, the black hearse is synonymous with the funeral profession. Traditionally seen with a funeral director walking in front, this is done as a mark of respect but also to give other cars time to join the cortege.The word hearse came from the French word ‘herse’, meaning a harrow, and originally stood over the bier or coffin and supported the pall. It was only later that hearse would be used to describe the entire vehicle containing the coffin. Evolving from the horse drawn hearses of the 1800s, the first motorised hearses came into usage in the early 1900s, however due to expense they were not widely used until the 1920s. From the 1930s onwards the hearse gained its now well known car chassis based design. During the early 20th century it was not uncommon for communities to use their motorised hearse as both a coffin carrier and ambulance. Many modern funeral professionals refer to the hearse as a funeral coach as they say it is a less frightening term and is more dignified.
In recent times the word hearse has been used to describe everything from milk floats to robin reliants. Recently, funeral director AW Lymn acquired a Rolls Royce Phantom VII formerly owned by Simon Cowell to use as part of its extensive fleet of hearses from bespoke and obscure vehicles to traditional ones.
Matthew Lymn Rose, managing director at AW Lymn told Funeral Service Times that the car fitted in perfectly with their fleet that “specialises in Rolls Royce vehicles both new and old”. Rose says the Rolls Royces are “ideal because they not only have a certain amount of presence, but they’re comfortable, they’re a nice relaxing and peaceful environment for the family to be in, because when they’re on that final journey, all they’re thinking about is the funeral”. Rose goes on to say that “the fleet consists of five Rolls Royce Phantom VII hearses and 19 Rolls Royce Phantom saloons” adding that the company also covers the specialist market “for people who want something a bit different and a bit special”.
Along with the cars of the stars, some like to take their final journey in the same vehicles they drove during their working life. In 2015 a Clitheroe milkman took his final voyage in a converted milk float, the float made its journey through the town centre before delivering him at his funeral at St Paul’s church. Following the events in Clitheroe it has been common for milkmen and milkwomen to have a float as their hearse as a symbol of their service to their community. Other professions to make their working vehicles into hearses include postal workers and their post vans, buses for bus drivers (and perhaps train drivers in the current climate) and taxis for taxi drivers (with no indication as to whether the hearse driver keeps the metre running while the service is on).
Rose explained that “its becoming more and more common” for people to choose vehicles they have driven in their professional life for their final journey. Rose says a Routemaster bus owned by the company became a hearse after former bus drivers and those interested in commercial vehicles asked for it. Now, due to the fact it is able to accommodate both funeral goers and the coffin, it is becoming popular with a much wider audience looking for something different. Rose goes on to detail other examples of commercial vehicles being used as hearses: “We did a funeral for a guy whose original family business was a coal merchants and they got their own wagon and brought it down to us prior to the funeral. We have a coffin deck which we can affix to almost any kind of vehicle and we put that on the back of his coal wagon and took him up to his funeral in that and his son actually drove the wagon.”
Rose says they’ve also had “a young guy who used to work on the fairground” who travelled to his ceremony in the back of his prized pickup truck driven by his father, Rose adds: “I can also think of a farmer who we took to his service on the back of his tractor in a trailer”
In America where Monster Jam, the sport of performing tricks in and racing monster trucks, is one of the most popular spectator sports in the country, it is not uncommon for superfans to take their final journey in one of the giant trucks. Some of these monster trucks have included Cadillac hearses from the 50s and 60s converted and amped up onto a monster truck base.
Many choose vehicles from their favourite TV series and films with bespoke vehicles including Scooby Doo’s Mystery Machine, the Millenium Falcon from Star Wars, KITT from Knight Rider and the Gran Torino from Starsky and Hutch. One company named Only Fools and Hearses offers clients a “Trotters funeral”, with the star obviously the three wheeled, bright yellow Robin Reliant. Only Fools and Hearses says if the series “was their character then look no further for that special day for your loved one”.
Speaking of bespoke and obscure hearses, Sam Kershaw, operations director, at Co-operative Funeralcare says that he has seen “a sea of change in recent years as people seek to personalise their send off” along with “the rise in alternatives to the traditional black hearse” which he says has met the needs of those looking for personalisation. Kershaw says “funeral customs are changing” adding that “people choose hearses amongst other elements of a funeral such as flowers and music which reflect and celebrate the life of a loved one”. Kershaw insists that unusual hearse ideas are not an inconvenience for funeral professionals as he says “no matter how unusual they are” he adds that “we would always urge families to discuss their wishes with their funeral director”. Kershaw warns that any plans must of course be “legal and decent” but mentioned that funeral directors would always try their “utmost to accommodate individual requests”.
Some prefer a more old fashioned approach by making their final journey in a horse drawn coach, most funeral directors offer black and grey horses along with a wide variety of hearse for them to carry. Rose says that despite their old fashioned style the horse drawn hearse is still popular explaining that the “horse drawn hearses are out most weeks”. Rose also says one of the crown jewels of the AW Lymn fleet is its 1800’s ‘shiliver’ which is a very early horse drawn hearse that accommodates both mourners and coffin.
Rose says there is no way to tell what vehicle a customer may be taking when they come through the door with no clear preference in vehicle type for old or young.
Away from some of the more celebratory vehicles used as hearses, AW Lymn used to offer a “specialised vehicle” for children, Rose explains it was a “Rolls Royce converted to take a child’s coffin”. Rose says the company now uses “a small coffin deck, that locates and fastens in the middle of the back seat of one of our Phantom VIIs”, Rose says this creates a more personalised atmosphere which allows “mum and dad to sit either side of the coffin”. Traditionally a children’s hearse would be white however most funeral directors now offer the vehicles in a wide variety of colours and styles.
It seems that there is no limit to what vehicle someone can make their final journey in today, with Rose pointing out their affixable coffin deck means that almost any vehicle can be used as a hearse, claiming “as long as its legal we’ll try our best”.