Hearses are fascinating motor vehicles by their own rights. As a particular variety of professional automobile the internal combustion powered hearse appeared in a funeral procession 106 years ago in Chicago, Illinois by Ludlow & Pearce Undertaking, 659 47th Street.
H. Durward Ludlow was “an outstanding figure in undertaking circles in the Chicago area.” The Ludlow establishment was the “last word” in connection with the undertaking service. Mr. Ludlow has been credited with conducting the first ever “automobile funeral” in the United States. The service was in honor of the late Wilfrid A. Pruyn, on January 15, 1909.
Ludlow had commissioned the vehicle to be fabricated from the coach body of a horse-drawn hearse mounted upon an omnibus chassis and powered by a gasoline fueled internal combustion engine.
The very first, self-propelled hearses were driven by electric motors. The first one in history was an electric ambulance/hearse given to the City of New York by industrialist J.P. Morgan, in 1895. Prior to that, ornate hardwood construction, horse-drawn carriages provided the transportation of the deceased to their final resting places. These vehicles featured the formal coachwork, styling details, and draperies that inspired today’s familiar hearses.
Even though the gasoline powered hearses were much more expensive than the horse-drawn variety, funeral directors realized that swifter hearses meant more funerals could be conducted each day. This fact helped gasoline hearses dominate the market by the 1920s.
If you have ever hired the services of a funeral company, you probably know that the vehicles are not called hearses, but, instead, are referred to as funeral coaches. This term is seen as less frightful and more dignified.
Despite their grim reputation, funeral coaches are quite attractive vehicles to see. Because no motor vehicle company has a corporate division that manufactures them, hearses must be custom built by independent companies that specialize in professional vehicles.
Funeral coach builders generally start with a base vehicle from a luxury car such as a Cadillac, Lincoln, or large European make. The first step involves the stripping of the fuel and brake lines along with the electrical harness of the car. Then the vehicle is literally sliced in half with a circular saw fitted with a sheet-metal cutting blade.
The next step involves the fitting of the two halves onto a much longer chassis. The gaps between the two pieces are then overlaid with a fiberglass or sheet metal shell. Roof extensions, door and window alterations take place, as well. Auto body mechanics and artisans smooth out any irregularities, then paint the body. When the major bodywork is completed, a longer, heavy-duty electrical harness is installed along with longer fuel and brake plumbing.
The distinguishing feature of the interior is then brought into place. A long platform to support a casket is installed. The platform has been previously manufactured with rollers to allow caskets to easily slide in and out through the rear door. Special attaching plates are provided so caskets can be temporarily fastened to the hearse, to prevent casket movement while the funeral coach is driven. The final touches include customized upholstery, drapery, and external trim that the customer has ordered.
The next time you see a funeral coach, you may wish to thank the ingenuity of H. Durwood Ludlow for the initial idea to build a practical, modern hearse.