Frazer Blog

History Behind the Hearse: From Horse-Drawn Carriage to Today

by | Jun 21, 2017 | For Families, Funeral Profession

Two white horses pulling a carriage

Dating back to the 17th century when they were horse-drawn carriages, hearses have been around for centuries. Although originally used as public transportation, they evolved into the staple funeral transportation.

But how exactly did we get from the horse-drawn carriage to the modern vehicles we know today? Let’s look at the history behind the hearse and how it’s evolved other the centuries.

Where It Began

The word “hearse” comes from the term harrow, which is a type of plowing equipment used to level the land. The framework of the early hearse had spikes for holding candles that resembled the teeth of a harrow. It consisted of a wooden or metal framework that stood over the bier holding the casket.

Biers are still around today, but for a slightly different purpose. They’re now made of aluminum and have wheels for moving the casket to and from the funeral location.

The Early Hearse

During the 17th century, the biers evolved into horse-drawn carriages. During the 19th century is when the wooden carriages became more intricate with carvings of flowers, doves, and scrolls. There also were velvet draperies hanging from the carriage sides, and the carriage was usually made of mahogany wood.

Introduction of the Motorized Hearse

The 20th century is when motorized hearses came about and horse-drawn carriages began to lose popularity. By the 1920s, motorized hearses became common and accepted. In the mid-20th century, Landau and limousine-styles became popular. The landau-style had S-shaped landau bars on the side and some of today’s hearses still have these S-shaped marks.

There were a few alternatives to the motorized hearse, like the funeral trolley car or subway car. These carried both the casket and funeral attendees to the cemetery, but they weren’t as popular as motorized hearses.

Today’s Hearse

Today in the U.S., we have many different hearses from the modern-day designs to even medium-sized vans converted into hearses. Also, the landau-style is still popular here, while in Europe the limousine-style is popular.

And as the funeral profession keeps evolving, we may even see self-driving hearses in our future.


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