Final Rides & Hearses
It’s an unusual word, hearse.
It comes to us from Latin (herpicem) via French (herse) and was originally the word used to describe the framework that stood over the coffin (or the bier on which the coffin rested) and supported the cloth covering (the pall).
The many spikes for candles on the framework resembled the teeth of a harrow, which, in French, was called a herse.
The English version of the name became commonly used to describe the structure over coffins and, around 1650, also began to be used for the carriages in which coffins were sometimes placed.
Fast forward to today, and the word hearse is only ever used to describe vehicles that have been specially adapted to carry coffins – generally big, shiny, black cars with extended chassis and large windows to display the coffin from all angles.
Traditional funeral directors frequently pride themselves on the calibre of their fleets and showcase their cars prominently on websites and in their brochures, with funeral trade magazines regularly featuring photos of funeral directors taking delivery of impressive new vehicles. Given the financial investment involved, (a Mercedes E-Class AMG hearse was recently advertised at £160,000), this is perhaps unsurprising.
The luxury car experience for a person’s ‘final ride’ has, for a long time, been part of an unspoken but insistent subconscious message about the perceived quality of the funeral company – if they have beautiful cars, so the assumption goes, they must be ‘proper’.
It’s hard to shake this perception, and this is probably why so many funeral directors focus so strongly on their cars in their literature and marketing. Subliminal messaging is powerful, it seems.
While the majority of funerals in the UK are still served by traditional motor hearses, it is important to know that it is not compulsory to have a hearse to convey a coffin. If you would prefer something less showy, most funeral companies can offer an alternative from their fleet – an estate car, for example, or a SUV. All funeral companies will also be able to hire in alternatives to their traditional hearse to accommodate clients looking for a different form of transport for the coffin on its final journey.
Carriage masters have tapped into this and offer all kinds of different colour hearses; white, pink, leopard print, Union flag and rainbow-coloured hearses are widely available for hire and are often featured in funeral companies’ brochures as an alternative choice.
You don’t need to stick with the traditional shape hearse either, you can opt for a Volkswagen Campervan hearse, a Morris Minor hearse or a LandRover hearse – all custom-built and available for hire. Google is your friend here – try ‘alternative hearse’ as a search term.
You can, of course, use your own vehicle — or any sort of vehicle – although you will need to check that the venue you have chosen won’t object. Some privately owned crematoria have rules and regulations that prohibit coffins arriving in anything other than a recognisable hearse. You can, of course, always choose a different venue if you prefer not to be dictated to.
You might also find that some funeral directors are reluctant to accommodate anything other than a choice of their beloved hearse, intimating that alternative choices are somehow less than ‘dignified’. Put your foot down. The definition of what’s dignified is yours alone.
The hearse of the future
The award-winning Brahms electric hearse is based on the Nissan Leaf electric car, modified with a coffin deck that will carry a 6’10” coffin with ease.
A number of forward-thinking funeral directors have already commissioned a Brahms hearse for their fleet, including Leverton & Sons in London who were involved in the development of the vehicle, Full Circle Funerals in Yorkshire and A Natural Undertaking in The Midlands.
David Billington from Full Circle Funerals says, “The team at Full Circle are proud to own the only electric Eco-hearse in the north of England. Apart from being a beautifully engineered piece of machinery and a step forward in creating a more environmentally friendly funeral, we really believe that this marks a major turning point in the funeral industry for the better.”
What other hearses are out there?
All of the vehicles below can be booked through most funeral directors, some can be hired directly.
Horse drawn hearses
All funeral directors can offer a horse drawn hearse as an alternative to a motor hearse, (although they often require their hearse gets used as well, as a ‘floral hearse’ or in case of a problem with the horses).
If you want the Victorian glamour and drama of horses drawing the carriage along the street, then your funeral director will be able to organise this for you. It is unusual for you to be able to hire a horse drawn hearse directly yourself.
Traditionally, horse-drawn hearses are black, and drawn by black horses, although white carriages and grey horses are also commonly available, and you can have two, four or even six horses depending on your preference and the journey involved. As a guideline, you can expect a horse drawn hearse to travel a distance of a maximum of around 8 miles. Hire fees will typically be in the region of £1,000 – £2,000 depending on the chosen turnout.
Motorbike and trike hearses
Motorcycle Funerals, the longest established and best-known provider of motorbike hearses, offers clients a choice of either a Triumph Bonneville, a Triumph Thunderbird, a Harley Davidson or a Suzuki Hayabusa.
The bikes are immaculately presented and ridden by experienced riders. You have the option of a passenger riding pillion alongside the coffin (often the funeral director will expect to do this, but as the client you absolutely have first call on pillion riding).
Based in Leicestershire and operating UK-wide, including the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man, the company was established in 2002 by the late Reverend Paul Sinclair, a huge character and a national treasure in his own right. “Why,” he asked, “should those who love bikes be last seen in an automobile?”
Trike enthusiasts might be interested in a trike hearse from Trike Funerals
The Leyland Beaver lorry hearse, previously owned and operated by David Hall who created Vintage Lorry Hearses, is now available for hire from A. W. Lymn.
Brendan Kinsella from Vintage Funeral Hearse offers a 1929 vintage Guy. It has been in the family for almost a hundred years and was converted for use as a hearse in 2010. Beautifully restored, it’s a real eyecatcher.
Other specialist converted hearses
Citroen Type-H van hearse
The Bon Voyage hearse has a friendly appearance and is immaculately presented.
The Fordson hotrod hearse is supplied by the Final Cruise Company.
If you want, they’ll customise the coffin, too.
Only Fools and Horses ‘Del Boy’ Reliant van hearse
Created by Darren Abey, Del Boy Trotter’s Reliant Regal 3-wheeler van tows a converted, stretch Reliant which carries the coffin. Available from Only Fools and Hearses
For a really impressive exit, Tanks a Lot have converted a tank to become ‘Tankhearse’ – available for hire throughout the UK.
Fire engine hearse
Classic Fire Engines offer a range of vintage and contemporary fire engines supplied with staff wearing appropriate uniforms. Family members can travel on board for the coffin’s final journey.
And a completely different alternative
These are low-tech, hard work – and totally environmentally responsible. People often take it in turns to lend a hand in the procession and feel involved.
Available to hire from A. W. Lymn or you may be able to source one locally. Ask your funeral director.