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The Vehicles of Halloween

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On: Mon, Oct 14, 2013 at 1:29PM | By: Karen Cook

The Vehicles of Halloween

When I am asked what my dream car is I always say a Cadillac Station Wagon. Usually the response is that Cadillac doesn’t make a station wagon. They actually make one, but it is more commonly called a hearse. I want one of the old rounded models instead of the more modern angular ones. Just think of all the groceries I could bring home!

It’s almost Halloween so I thought a jaunt into the history of hearses was appropriate.

Where does the word “hearse” come from? Originally it was spelled “herse” in Old English and dates back to the 11th century when the Normansbuilt huge, very elaborate wooden structures to hold candles around the dead during the funeral service. Eventually the whole thing would be carried to the burial site which is where our modern funeral procession comes from. The procession had to move very slowly to keep the candles from going out and we still move slowly today harking back to this tradition. Sometime in the 17th century, people starting using the word to refer to the horse-drawn carriages that conveyed the casket to the place of burial during a funeral procession.

The first motorized hearse ran on an electric motor and was built somewhere between 1901 and 1907. The sources I could find disagreed, but the first modern gas-powered hearse was built in 1909 and these have been in constant use since. The first ones actually did double duty as ambulances also and were called “funeral coaches” when they carried the dead. Alternately the deceased could sometimes be carried in a furniture van since carpenters made coffins as well as home furnishings.

In North America the major manufacturers of hearses are Cadillac and Lincoln. In Europe they are made by Mercedes-Benz, Jaguar, and Opel. Fiat produced them in Italy for a while. In England and Ireland the casket is visible in the back of the hearse while in the United States we prefer to keep the back curtains closed.

Celebrities will buy used hearses and use them as limousines or just as part of a collection. John F Kennedy’s hearse was sold for $160,000 at an auction in January 2012.

Eventually we will all need the services of a hearse but there is no need to stick to tradition. You can still hire horse-drawn carriage hearses. If you are a motorcycle enthusiast hearses are made out of those too, or if you are extremely environmentally conscious you can get one built on a modified bicycle. I would assume your driver would have to have very strong legs and your funeral home would have to be very close to the cemetery.

Happy Halloween!

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