A Brief History of Hearses

Today, hearses are the most recognizable vehicle used by professional funeral businesses. But the hearse has a long history that includes alternative modes of power and evolutions over time to turn this vehicle from a basic wagon into the elegant vehicle seen at funerals, memorials, and at the front of funeral processions.

While other types of vehicles—such as transport vans—are essential to providing funeral services for the friends and family of departed loved ones, your company's hearse has a big impact on brand perceptions and the overall experience of your funeral services. Interested in the history of funeral hearses, and how they arrived at their current form? Read on for a brief history of this important funeral vehicle.

The Horse-Drawn Hearse Origin Story

The use of basic wagons and vehicles to transport bodies and coffins goes back hundreds of years. But the modern use of hearses—both the vehicle, and the term—dates back to at least the 17th century, when the coffins of the deceased were transported by horse-drawn carriages adorned with candles.

Horses remained the only option for transporting remains from funeral venues to cemeteries until the early 1900s, when electric and gas-powered motors were developed and installed into hearse carriages. In 1909, an undertaker built the first modern version of a hearse by combining the body of a horse-drawn carriage with a bus chassis featuring a gas-powered engine.

This inventive approach to building hearses on top of existing vehicle chassis has remained the standard mode of hearse construction even to this day.

Embracing Gas Power With 1920s Hearse Vehicles

By the 1920s, gas-powered hearses had become an in-demand funeral vehicle, driven largely by the discovery by funeral businesses that a gas-powered vehicle would let them operate a greater number of funerals each day.

While these vehicle designs remained somewhat basic compared to the aesthetic changes popularized in later years, gas-powered hearse production continued to pick up momentum, becoming a cornerstone in how funeral businesses grew their business volume and their profitability.

The Rise of the Old Cadillac Hearse - A Part of the History of the Hearse

When gas-powered heareses began to see a rise in demand, Cadillac was one of the early auto manufacturers whose branding began to appear on these vehicles. In reality, Cadillac didn't—and still doesn't—fully build the hearses themselves. In the old days of hearse manufacturing, these vehicles were shipped only partially assembled, and hearse buyers needed to install the hearse accessories on their own.

Over time, Cadillac began to partner with specialized hearse manufacturers to deliver the chassis that hearse features and functionality would be built upon. Still, Cadillac's early entry into this space made it one of the more established hearse brands, along with Lincoln. Today, Cadillac-branded hearses remain among the most popular hearse vehicles on the market, and their elegant design and trademark features play an important role in shaping your company's branded experience.

Adopting Modern Updates With 1950s Hearse Trends

Exterior hearse designs continued to be refined from the first slapped-together vehicle onward. But it wasn't until the 1950s that the modern style of the funeral hearse really came into form.

This design included an elongated chassis outfitted with a molded fiberglass shell that forms the roof and sides of the hearse's cargo space. Typically, this shell is painted black or matched to the body paint color of the vehicle. Many hearse's also feature elongated red tail lights, which were brought into style by Cadillac and have remained one of the signature features of hearses today.

Chrome trim and embellishments also became common, as did improved hearse cargo space such as rollers to help load and unload, and side panel windows that could be covered with a curtain for a more discrete ride. Anchoring pins also became popular to properly secure a coffin during transport.

Vehicle styles for other conventional vehicles have changed dramatically over the years, and so has the engine, performance specifications and other features of a hearse, such as LED grills and flag holders. By and large, though, today's hearses have retained the classic look of mid-century models while upgrading the interior and performance with the features and capabilities today's professional funeral businesses need.

Modern hearses have evolved significantly from their simple designs and horse-drawn origins, with the most popular brands like Chevy Traverse, Cadillac, and Lincoln hearse now integrating the versatility and comfort of the Traverse SUV while incorporating specialized modifications for dignified funeral services. If your funeral business is in need of a new hearse to add to its fleet, it's important to consider your options carefully and make an investment that serves your functional needs while suiting your budget and the overall experience your business provides.

A professional vehicles specialist can help you find the best-fit hearse for your company. Contact us today to learn about our available inventory.

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Shields Professional Vehicles

850 Williams Drive

Marietta, GA 30066


Fax: 678-784-2110