Few things are quite as unique as the funeral hearse. The car evokes images of funeral processions and cemeteries, whether it’s sitting in a parking lot or transporting a body to rest. Beyond the hearse, the memorial and burial process requires several funeral cars.

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The Hearse

The iconic hearse is the main vehicle of the funeral industry. The somewhat morbid-looking vehicle’s makers designed them with no subtlety in mind. The hearse is a large vehicle that transports a body from the funeral or service to the final resting place. It’s an easily identifiable vehicle due to its long backend. The history of the word is quite interesting. The word comes from the French herse meaning “harrow,” a rake-like device used to plow fields. Merriam-Webster breaks down its etymology:

An early form of French used the word herce for a harrow, a farm tool used to break up and smooth the soil. Herce was also applied to a triangular frame that was similar in shape to the frame of a harrow and was used for holding candles. Herce was borrowed into English as hearse, and both the literal sense of “harrow” and the extended sense of “a frame for holding candles” were kept.

In those days a large and decorative framework might be raised over the tomb or coffin of an honored person. Because this framework was often decorated with candles, the word hearse was applied to it. A series of slightly changed meanings led to the use of hearse for a platform for a corpse or coffin, and from that to a vehicle to carry the dead to the grave.

In reality, hearses are purely ceremonial. A funeral director wouldn’t pick up a body in the middle of the night using a hearse. Most funeral directors and deathcare workers would use vans or utility vehicles. 

Transporting the family

A grieving family may rent a limousine or small bus that would hold everyone for the day of the funeral. The closest members of the family can then be together on the trip from the funeral service to the burial. Whether for a short drive spent celebrating the life of the deceased or a few moments of comfort, many families want to stay close during this journey. 

Procession cars

Given that funeral processions are very official affairs, some families employ other special vehicles. Someone working for the funeral home may drive the lead car. This literally leads and guides the procession of mourners to the cemetery. It also signals to other cars that a funeral procession is coming. In the United States, cars pull over to allow processions too. This sign of respect allows attendees to stay close to the hearse and form a kind of parade. Families also sometimes request a police escort. Law enforcement motorcycles accompany the procession in order to give proper respect and recognition to the occasion. Escort cars can also be used by funeral directors but would have similar authority to police escorts. 

What are some of the unique funeral traditions that you’ve observed?


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