The Origins of the Hearse
The hearse as we know it today didn’t come into being until the introduction of motorization. However, variations on the concept existed centuries ago, starting with the hand-drawn carts used to transport bodies in medieval times. These “biers” were similar to those used to transport produce and goods. They featured wheels, handles with which the funeral procession could drag the bier, and a covering to conceal the body from those walking alongside the cart.
Though biers were the most common method of transport during these early periods, there was another that was typically reserved for the wealthy – the horse-drawn hearse. The earliest evidence of horse-drawn hearses comes from a painting named “Funeral Cortege of Richard II.” The artwork, created in 1468, shows a cart drawn by four horses.
The practice continued beyond 1468, at least in England, with the funeral of Henry VIII. As a monarch renowned for extravagance, it should come as no surprise that Henry VIII’s funeral procession was one for the ages. He requested three hearses, each standing 14 feet tall and pulled by eight horses. The carts used for these hearses were made using wax rather than wood or iron. Historians speculate that wax was the material of choice both because of the ease of molding it and the temporary nature of these early examples of hearses.
The Introduction of the Term “Hearse”
Image: Scottsdale Funeral Museum
Though hearses existed in concept during the 15th century and potentially before, the term “hearse” didn’t see widespread usage until the 17th century. Around this time, horse-drawn carriages became more accessible to everyday people, making their usage more widespread. The carriages themselves were also designed to suit the casket placed within. Frames were used to keep the coffin from slipping, and the carriage would often feature glass panels to allow the funeral procession to view the casket as it moved.
Further developments followed over the next two centuries. The introduction of bier pins helped to keep caskets stable while in transit, a concept that would later make its way to motorized hearses. And the style of the horse-drawn hearse became more elaborate over time, peaking with the Victorian era in the United Kingdom. As a result, hearses became works of art as much as practical ways to transport the deceased, with the most elaborate designs reserved for nobility and royalty.
The Hearse Becomes Motorized
The advent of the 20th century brought the next big revolution in hearse design – the gas-powered motor. Some dispute exists over who created the first motorized hearse. AAA Magazine claims that an undertaker named H.D. Ludlow made the first of these vehicles when he commissioned the creation of a hearse that combined a horse-drawn casket carriage and a bus chassis. Other resources state that New York’s General Vehicle Company came first, creating an electric hearse in 1908.
Digging through that information, it appears that General Vehicle Company did come first, at least in terms of creation. But it was indeed Ludlow who carried out the first funeral using a motorized hearse to transport the body of a man named Wilfrid A. Pruyn.
Regardless, the motorized hearse didn’t become immediately popular. Gas-powered motors were still too costly during the 1910s. However, that changed in the 1920s as new production methods resulted in motors becoming more accessible to the public. Funeral directors soon recognized the benefits, as motorized vehicles allowed them to carry out more funerals per day due to their increased speed. Thus, the increased business opportunities outweighed the higher initial costs of commissioning the vehicles.
The next, and perhaps last, major innovation in hearse design arrived in 1930. A company named Sayers and Scovill created the “landau-style” hearse, taking inspiration from limousine design to feature semi-convertible tops and extended rear ends. Both features serve functional purposes as they make loading and unloading the casket easier during the funeral procession.
The Hearse Is a Part of Culture
The constant evolution of the hearse holds plenty of cultural significance. The history of the hearse demonstrates how vehicles changed from horse-drawn carriages only available to the richest in society to the motorized vehicles available to all today.
Hollywood Forever is inspired by anything that has influenced culture, as evidenced by the cultural events held at the landmark cemetery. Those interested in learning more or simply enjoying cultural events will find that the cemetery hosts classic film screenings, interesting lectures, and the largest Dia de Los Muertos event in the United States. Learn more about each of these events and book your place at Hollywood Forever.