Hearses, Funeral Carriages and Cars

Everything you need to know about the type of hearses and vehicles available when you are choosing funeral cars

Last updated: 17 July 2019

funeral hearse

Image by Michael Kauer from Pixabay

Most funeral processions are led by a hearse, which takes the person who has died to the funeral venue and, if they are being buried, to the burial ground. Here’s everything you need to know about this special form of funeral transport.

What is a hearse?

A hearse is a chauffeur-driven funeral car especially designed to convey a coffin to the funeral service.

Most typically associated with stretch-type limousines, or horse-drawn carriages, there are a host of alternative ways to transport someone who has died to their funeral venue – ranging from specially modified motorcycle sidecars, to VW camper hearses.

Funeral directors typically collect the body of a person who has died in what’s called a private ambulance – a specially modified van with discreetly tinted windows so that passers-by cannot see in. The hearse is reserved for the funeral procession.

A carefully secured coffin can be transported to a funeral in an ordinary van or estate car, but most people choose for some form of hearse to lead the funeral procession – also known as a cortege – on the day of the funeral.

Why do they call it a hearse?

The word hearse derives from hercia, a medieval Latin word for a farming implement that’s known today as a harrow.

This word first came to be associated with funerals when ornate frameworks – vaguely resembling a harrow – were erected over tombs in churches. By the 1600s, hearse also described the means of transporting someone to their funeral.

Hearses in the funeral procession

The hearse takes the lead at a funeral procession, with the coffin and floral tributes clearly visible through its windows.

There is typically just one passenger seat in a hearse and it is usual for the funeral director that’s leading the service to accompany the driver. However, if it’s your wish to accompany the person who has died to the funeral in the hearse, the funeral director should be happy for you to ride up front with the driver.

It’s usual for immediate family members, or lead mourners, to be driven to the funeral in a funeral car immediately behind the hearse. Depending on the model, this kind of limousine can usually accommodate between six and nine passengers.

Alternative hearses can include double-decker buses and other forms of transport that have space to accommodate mourners. The specialist companies that provide funeral transport to funeral directors around the UK are known as carriage masters – a hark-back to the days of the horse drawn funeral coach.

Modern hearses

A number of well-known auto companies manufacture hearses and funeral limousines, including Rolls Royce, Daimler, Mercedes, Jaguar, Volvo, Vauxhall, Ford and Maserati.

If the marque isn’t in your funeral director’s fleet of funeral cars, they will usually be able to arrange for the hire of the particular model you would like.

Hearses and funeral cars are known for their longevity. Many funeral directors offer the hire of black or silver classic and vintage funeral cars, if the kind of vehicle you’d like is not a part of their own funeral car fleet.

A hearse is generally included in the price of many funeral packages, with many also including the provision of a funeral car for mourners, too.

Extra funeral cars for mourners can cost from around £250, with the cost of a horse-drawn hearse in the region of £1,000 or more.

Alternative and other bespoke funeral transport is often provided by a third-party carriage master. Your funeral director should be able to discuss the options and prices with you. These third party costs will be included in the total funeral bill.

Horse drawn hearses

A horse drawn hearse is sometimes also known as a funeral coach or funeral carriage. There are a number of livery stables around the UK that specialise in providing funeral coaches and the horses that pull them.

Most funeral directors can arrange for a horse-drawn hearse, along with a choice of carriage. It may even be possible to choose the colour of the horses.

There is also a quite variety of special breed horses, used for carriage work. Among the beautiful horse breeds that can be seen pulling funeral carriages are the Friesian, Schweres Sachsen and Selician.

Many horse drawn funeral carriages still in operation are more than 100 years old, with some dating back to the Victorian era.

On the road: Can I overtake a hearse?

A hearse doesn’t necessarily have to travel at a snail’s pace, but will generally lead the funeral procession at a sedate 20 to 40 miles per hour, depending on the type of road, distance to travel and speed limit.

It’s courteous for the drivers of other vehicles to be patient as the cortege proceeds and give way to allow other funeral cars following the hearse to keep up with the procession.

There is likely to be a number of cars behind the hearse in a funeral procession. It’s inconsiderate to overtake a hearse and cut in – although on a dual carriageway or motorway with plenty of space, it’s fine to overtake.

If you are driving your own car in a funeral procession, the funeral director may provide you with a marker for your car, to help other drivers identify that you’re part of the cortege. Some funeral directors affix feathered plumes to funeral cars – a hark-back to the day of the traditional horse drawn cortege and a readily identifiable sign for other drivers to be aware.

Although it’s becoming more uncommon these days, it is a touching and respectful gesture for pedestrians to remove or touch their hat, as a hearse and funeral procession passes them by.

Alternative hearses

If a vehicle has a chassis that’s long and wide enough to convey a coffin or casket, then it can probably be modified into a hearse.

Among the most popular alternative options provided by funeral homes and specialist carriage masters is the motorcycle hearse, with a glass-sided sidecar conveying the coffin. Harley Davidson hearses, along with Triumphs and Thunderbirds are among the motorbike hearses available to hire and are especially popular for biker funerals.

A good funeral director should be able to undertake the arrangements for any funeral transport hire via a carriage master.

VW campers, motor trikes, hot-rods, Land Rover, JCBs, vintage flatbed trucks and even taxis are among the variety of alternative ways that you can travel to your own funeral in style. One specialist funeral transport company in the UK even has a yellow Reliant Robin hearse for hire.

Hearses need not be black – pink is a popular alternative choice and it’s possible to request motor hearses and horse-drawn funeral coaches in a variety of eye catching liveries, from leopard print and flower-power patterns to Union Flag desigs.

A brief history of the hearse

Centuries ago, most people would have been carried in their coffin, or upon a bier, from the place where they died to the local burial ground.

A bier is the flat frame on which the dead were laid, and at many funerals today, is the stand that the coffin rests upon, during the funeral service.

By the Victorian times, some biers had wheels and were encased in glass, and had essentially become hand-drawn versions of the horse-drawn hearse.

Glass-sided horse-drawn-hearses, or funeral carriages, had become commonplace by the mid-19th century, drawn by horses with black ostrich-feather plumes in their bridles, signalling that they were leading a cortege.

Motorised hearses began to appear in the first decade of the 20th century. The electric hearse is said have made its debut in Paris in around 1907.

Ohio manufacturer Crane & Breed is commonly attributed to be the inventor of the first petrol-driven motorised hearse – its Auto Hearse was developed for mass-production, around 1909.

The first funeral procession to be led by a petrol-vehicle hearse, was that of Wilfrid Pruyn. Chicago funeral director HD Ludlow commissioned a livery company to modify a horse-drawn charabanc into a motor hearse for Wilfrid’s funeral. Coincidentally, this bespoke hearse was built in 1909, just as manufacturers were developing blueprints for hearses that could be built on production lines.

Until well after the First World War in the UK, horse-drawn funeral coaches were still in common use, with petrol vehicles beginning to gain ground – or, at least, road – from the 1920s onwards.

Many vintage horse drawn and motor hearses have been lovingly conserved and are still in use, while in funeral; museums around the world you’ll find some amazingly ornate hearses from funeral history on display. In fact, Barcelona has a museum entirely dedicated to ornate funeral carriages, The Museu de Carrosses Fúnebres.

The National Museum of Funeral History in Houston, Texas includes a funeral bus among its spectacular collection of funeral carriages and vintage hearses. Dating back to 1916, it was spacious enough to convey the coffin, pallbearers and up to 20 mourners. The museum also has the hearses that transported famous people to their funerals – including Grace Kelly and former president Ronald Reagan – on display.

Alternative hearses in history

Elizabeth I, Nelson and Churchill are among the great Britons that were conveyed in state down the river Thames on a funeral barge, while Queen Victoria, who died at Osborne House on the Isle of Wight, was conveyed first by yacht, then funeral train to London, where a gun carriage pulled by sailors, served as the State hearse.

From the mid 1800s until 1941, the dead and their mourners were often conveyed to the funeral by trains with purpose-built hearse cars. These necropolis trains headed out from London giant to new garden cemeteries built on its outskirts, which had their own stations.

A specially dedicated funeral train line, the Necropolis Railway, ran between Waterloo and Brookwood Cemetery in Surrey. Living passengers and the dead could choose between first, second and third class travel on the funeral train. The Great Northern Cemetery, now known as New Southgate, also had a dedicated station for funerals trains.