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Hearses: Eye-popping Collection in Houston

National Museum of Funeral History Hearses
Posted: January 31, 2020 at 2:02 pm   /   by   /   comments (6)

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The National Museum of Funeral History

A wide variety of hearses are on view at the National Museum of Funeral History in Houston. Some of these date from the late 1800s! Back in those long-gone days, most of these conveyances were horse-drawn. Motorized vehicles did not yet exist. In this post, you can take a look at some of these beautifully decorated carriages and learn something about them. Information is adjacent to these vehicles at the museum, some of which I will relate to you.

You can also see the vehicles in which Princess Grace, President Ronald Reagan, and President Gerald Ford rode to their final resting place. Enjoy the ride!

1832 Horse-Drawn Hearse

1832 Horse-Drawn Hearse

Oldest Restored Hearse in the U.S.

The belief is that this 1832 horse-drawn hearse is the oldest restored one in the country. Last used in 1926 in Cambridgeport, Vermont, the wheels are replaced with sleighs during the winter months.

Hearse, 1860

Hearse, 1860

This vehicle pictured above came from Mannheim, Germany. The restoration took place after arriving in Houston. Two horses pulled the hearse. Black horses indicated that the deceased was a man: white horses, a woman. The glass is acid etched.

Hearse, Late 1800s

Hearse, the Late 1800s

This ornate carved wooden hearse pictured above is from the late 1800s. The roof cover is leather.

Horse-drawn Sleighs

In the winter months, when snow blanketed the earth, horses could more easily pull the hearses over fields and other lands to the church or gravesite. These were the days before roads were other than rudimentary at best. There are several horse-drawn sleigh relics at the Museum of Funeral History.  See below.

Late 1800s Horse-Drawn Sleigh

Late 1800s Horse-Drawn Sleigh

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Origin Of The Word Hearse

Long before funeral homes were the place where people used to gather to pay homage to the deceased, they were at home until the burial. In the early days before electricity, candles often illuminated the darkness. Candelabras often placed around or on top of a coffin were the norm. This information is from “HowStuffWorks” as well as other sources. “Herse” was the name of that candelabra. The spelling of the name “herse” eventually changed to “hearse.” It took on the meaning of the horse-drawn carriages taking the caskets to the place of burial. Motorized hearses did not appear until the early part of the 20th century.

Rockfalls Hearse, 1880

Rockfalls Hearse, 1880

The 1880 Rockfalls Hearse above is a beauty! After restoration in 1992, what is still original are the coach lamps and interior drapery and felt.

Kimball Brougham, 1888

Kimball Brougham, 1888

“Widow’s Coach”

“This four-passenger brougham, also called a “widow’s coach,” was the traditional lead vehicle behind the hearse in funeral processions.”

Upon refinishing, the exterior structure is lined with fiberglass strengthening the body. Coach lamps are the originals. New upholstery duplicates the original and appears to change from black to green with the angle of viewing.

“Carpet-covered ember-filled foot warmers provided passengers respite from the cold Chicago weather. A speaking tube allowed communication with the driver. Beveled windows are raised and lowered by straps.”

Robert L. Waltrip is responsible for many of these funeral conveyances on display in the museum. The 1888 Kimball Brougham is just one of many.

Children’s Hearse

This children’s white hearse from 1900 is courtesy of Juanita H. Rizzo, Houston, TX. Below is information about this one of a kind beauty.

This hearse was designed especially for children’s funerals. It is smaller and is white instead of black. The conveyance was pulled by two men who wore black suits, gloves, and a tall hat like a wood stove pipe. Construction of this vehicle was done in St. Remi, Quebec, around 1900 by M.Arthur Bisaillon. Mr. Bisaillon was a craftsman who built hearses for adults and children.

The restoration took place in Alvin, Texas, and is about 5/8 the size of an ordinary horse-drawn hearse. It has a dome-shaped top with a cross in the center and glass-paneled doors.

1916 Buick Sayers Et Scovill Hearse

1916 Buick Sayers Et Scovill Hearse

Hearses Become Motorized

Today there is an effort to make more of our cars run on electricity instead of gas. Believe it or not, the very first motorized hearse was electric! By the 1920s, gas-powered hearses became the norm. During Prohibition, sometimes bootleggers successfully hid their liquor and transported it in hearses. Police officers at that time were less likely to want to stop and inspect items in that type of vehicle.

The 1916 Buick Sayers Et Scovill hearse pictured above has a 40-horsepower Buick Superior six-cylinder engine. The sides of this vehicle are hand-carved oak that looks like drapery. There is a double-decker interior consisting of Philippine mahogany that accommodates a casket below with flowers above.

1916 Packard Funeral Bus

1916 Packard Funeral Bus

Funeral Bus

The 1916 Packard Funeral Bus has a fascinating history.

“The only surviving funeral vehicle of its kind, this bus was built by Fifth Avenue Coach Company in New York City and was originally mounted on a Kelly truck chassis. Expected to partially supplant the traditional, lengthy funeral procession, the bus held the casket, pallbearers, and 20 mourners.

Initially owned by a San Francisco funeral home, this vehicle was climbing uphill to a cemetery when the weight in the aft section caused the bus to tip back. Pallbearers tumbled over mourners, and the casket overturned. The embarrassed funeral director removed the bus from service and from its chassis. For the next 40 years, a ranch hand called the funeral bus “Home.”

When a California funeral director discovered the bus, he had it remounted on a Packard chassis. Current owner Robert Larrabee returned the bus to running condition. Otherwise, it remains unretired. The tires are original to the bus and are made of hard rubber. Windows and interior design are of the Art Nouveau period. Radiator and headlamps are brass. It has a Packard four-cylinder engine, which was made for trucks and automobiles, and a three-speed progressive transmission. The Packard drive train permits speeds of up to 10 to 12 miles per hour.

Courtesy of Robert D. Larrabee Merchant Funeral Home Clarkson, Washington 1992″

1921 Rockfalls Hearse

1921 Rockfalls Hearse

As you can quickly see by looking at the 1921 Rockfalls Hearse, much craftsmanship went into the hand-carving of this beauty. Six types of wood are a part of the body panels of this vehicle. It has a 29-horsepower Continental “Red Seal” engine.

1924 Ford Model TT Hoover Hearse

1924 Ford Model TT Hoover Hearse

The 1924 Ford Model TT Hoover hearse, similar to the one above, has two levels, one to hold the casket, and the other to carry the funeral flowers. The double “T” indicates a commercial truck. It has a four-cylinder engine and is in excellent running condition.

1935 Studebaker Dictator Superior Hearse

1935 Studebaker Dictator Superior Hearse

Studebaker was one of the first manufacturers to use hydraulic brakes, and this vehicle retains the original, according to a posted sign next to it.

1938 Henney-Packard Flower Care

1938 Henney-Packard Flower Car

Flower Cars

“In 1938, the Henney Motor Company of Freeport, Illinois, became America’s exclusive supplier of professional vehicles on a Packard commercial chassis and introduced its first Flower Cars.  When new, this attractive Henney-Packard offering retailed for $2,036 and was one of the most popular flower cars in America.”

1939 Superior - LaSalle Mount Claire Hearse

1939 Superior – LaSalle Mount Claire Hearse

Notice the side-mounted spare tire in the photo above. Arnold and Fred Veile of the Worland Furniture Company bought this vehicle for $2,500.00. At the time, their funeral home was in the basement of the furniture company. It has a Cadillac 332 cubic inch V-8 engine.
Courtesy of David Veile Worland Wyoming

1951 Superior - Cadillac Landaulet Hearse

1951 Superior – Cadillac Landaulet Hearse

Landau Styling

Limousine-like styling, which began in the 1930s, is still fashionable today. Landau bars, an ornamental feature, are commonly seen on hearses today.

Manufacturers of Hearses

No automobile company makes hearses from scratch. The manufacturers of modern-day hearses take existing bodies of cars and customize them. They often cut them in half, lengthen them, and add other custom features.

At one time, several manufacturers were doing this, but over time, mergers have taken place. Presently, the largest manufacturer of these vehicles in the United States is Accubuilt, Inc. of Lima, Ohio. They have about 60% of the U.S. market.

The majority of the car parts come from Cadillac, Lincoln, and Mercedes. The average price is currently $60,000 and up for a newly built hearse.

1972 Japanese Ceremonial Hearse

1972 Japanese Ceremonial Hearse

Japanese Ceremonial Hearse

This hearse is the type of vehicle typically used in Japan for Japanese-style funerals. It transports the casket from the home to the crematorium with the family accompanying it. A music system with speakers mounted on the outside is able to play music during the funeral procession. The casket goes on the roof of the vehicle, which is ornately hand-painted with flowers and other designs resembling a Buddhist temple.

The cost (in 1995 dollars) for this modified 1972 Toyota Crown Station Wagon was approximately $140,000.

Old-time Hearse in the National Museum of Funeral History

Old-time Hearse in the National Museum of Funeral History

Dual-Purposed Vehicles

In the early days and even up to the middle part of the 20th century, especially in small rural areas, hearse-type vehicles sometimes were ambulances, depending upon the need. After the 1970s, regulations took place, which had more strict rules as to the use of these vehicles.

In the one shown above, the enterprising owner advertised his other line of work.

1973 Mercedes Hearse in Foreground

1973 Mercedes Hearse in Foreground

Fit For A Princess

This 1973 Mercedes hearse on display was used in the funeral of Princess Grace of Monaco on September 18, 1982. The vehicle delivered the coffin of Princess Grace to the castle. She now lies in a Crypt owned by the Grimaldi’s family inside of the Cathedral.

Presidential Funeral Hearse

Presidential Funeral Hearse

Information next to the Presidential Funeral Hearse

Information next to the Presidential Funeral Hearse

The Last Ride

While hearses are typically transporting caskets to services and cemeteries, some people use them for other purposes. Some auto enthusiasts started collecting these luxurious, hand-crafted vehicles to add to their collections. A few singer celebrities have repurposed these vehicles to transport their equipment to concerts.

If you like the photos and information in this article, be sure to visit the National Museum of Funeral History to learn much more. These photos and the information only capture a small fraction of what is there. The address is 415 Barren Springs Drive, Houston, Texas 77090-5918.

More to See at the Museum of Funeral History

Fantasy Coffins!

A Haunted House!

 

Comments (6)

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  • February 6, 2020 at 2:29 am John Yoder

    I’ve always wanted to go to this museum. Looks so interesting. Seems like it is a fairly big place.

    Reply
    • February 7, 2020 at 12:18 am Peggy

      Hi John,

      It is a huge museum containing what I have written about, and so much more. I’ll feature more about it in the future. It is the only museum of its kind in our country. I hope that you and Faith get up there to see all of it someday and let me know what you think of it. Thanks for your comment.

      Reply
  • February 5, 2020 at 8:35 pm Bruce

    What a beautiful and elegant way to be carried to a final resting place.

    Reply
    • February 5, 2020 at 10:59 pm Peggy

      Hi Bruce,

      I agree! I particularly like the old hand-carved hearses.

      Reply
  • February 5, 2020 at 8:16 pm Pamela Oglesby

    You are surely in good copany if you choose to have your remains carried by one of these vehicvles to your final resting place. This is sure an interestiing article as it so interesting. Thank you Peggy for this new information. Houston certianly offers a variety of places to visit or to carry your last remains.

    Reply
    • February 5, 2020 at 10:51 pm Peggy

      Hi Pamela,

      I think that those elegant old horse-drawn carriages would be the height of a final last ride. The newer limousine-styled ones look too much alike compared to those hand-carved ones of old. Thanks for your continuing interest in what there is to see and do in Houston.

      Reply