The History of the Hearse: Your Last Ride

As Americans, we treasure our freedom of choice when it comes to automobiles. That’s why some of us drive Smart Cars and others tool around in SUVs. But there’s one type of vehicle that almost all of us will ride in one day, whether we want to or not. I’m referring to a hearse, or “funeral coach” as they’re known in some parts of the country. Finish a trip in one of these babies and you won’t be coming back any time soon.

Funeral processions have existed for thousands of years, as a way to honor the dead while allowing the bereaved to comfort and support each other. But the practice of conveying bodies in wheeled vehicles came with the advent of horse-drawn carriages. Later, as railroads were built, the dear departed would often take their last trip on board a box car. This is how Abraham Lincoln’s remains made their way from Washington, DC to their final resting place in Illinois.

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This practice began to change at the dawn of the 20th century as electric- and gas-powered vehicles became accepted. Scientific American from May 1907 featured an article about funeral directors in Paris who were using battery-powered hearses. The silent vehicles reportedly chilled bystanders to the bone, as spectators watched them glide noiselessly to the graveyard…

Manufacturers have built gas-powered funeral coaches in the United States since 1909. Today a small handful of specialty companies meets this demand. The largest of these businesses is the Accubuilt Company of Lima, Ohio. The firm uses luxury autos like Cadillacs and upscale Lincolns. Workers slice the car in two sections front to back, add a special chassis and fiberglass shell, and insert a rolling platform in the back to hold the casket. The customizing work costs around $60,000.00, not including the cost of the original vehicle.

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It may sound grisly, but some customizers have turned used hearses into hot rods, ATVs, and all sorts of nifty vehicles. One CA-based company rents them out as limos. Their website boasts that they’re “putting the fun back into funerals.” I suppose if you’ve gotta go then you might as well ride in style on the way. As they say, any excuse for a party.

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