A hearse is a funeral vehicle, a conveyance for the coffin from e.g. a church to a cemetery, a similar burial site, or a crematorium. In the funeral trade, they are often called funeral coaches.
Originally, an elaborate framework would be erected over a coffin or tomb to which memorial verses or epitaphs were attached. It was then put on the top of horse drawn carriages, looking much like a luggage rack. Today, the original hearse is symbolized by the bit of scroll work or stretched-out "S" on the side of a funeral coach (although many modern funeral coaches don't have those anymore either, as a cost-cutting measure).
Hearses were originally horse-drawn, but silent electric motorised carts were introduced as horses began to be phased out as transportation. Examples that were used in Paris were reported in the pages of Scientific American May 1907 and petrol-driven hearses began to be produced from 1909 in the United States. Motorised hearses became more widely accepted in the 1920s. The vast majority of hearses since then have been based on larger, more powerful car chassis, generally retaining the front end up to and possibly including the front doors but with custom bodywork to the rear to contain the coffin. Some early hearses also served as ambulances, owing to the large cargo capacity in the rear of the vehicle. A few cities experimented with funeral trolley cars and/or subway cars to carry both the casket and mourners to cemeteries, but these were not popular.
North America and Europe
Normally more luxurious brands of car are used as a base; the vast majority of hearses in the United States and Canada are Cadillacs and Lincolns. In Europe, Mercedes-Benz, Jaguar, Opel, Ford, Vauxhall and Volvo are common contemporary bases, and in the past, Daimler and even Rolls-Royce limousines were converted, though their cost is generally considered prohibitive.
Cadillac produced what it termed a "commercial chassis". This was a strengthened version of the long-wheelbase Fleetwood limousine frame to carry the extra weight of bodywork, rear deck and cargo. Designed for professional car use, the rear of the Cadillac commercial chassis was considerably lower than the passenger car frame, thereby lowering the rear deck height as well for ease of loading and unloading. They were shipped as incomplete cars to coachbuilders for final assembly. A commercial chassis Cadillac was little more than a complete rolling chassis, front end sheet metal with lighting and trim, dashboard and controls. Rear quarter panels and sometimes the front door shells were shipped with the chassis for use in the finished coachwork. Today, most hearses are made from converted sedans on stretched wheelbases. The fleet division of Ford Motor Company sells a Lincoln Town Car with a special "hearse package" strictly to coachbuilders. Shipped without rear seat, rear interior trim, rear window or decklid, the hearse package also features a heavy-duty suspension, brakes, charging system and tires and was once offered on a modified Ford Expedition SUV chassis with the Triton V10 truck engine. Hearses and other funeral service vehicles are often equipped with light bars and other flashing lights similar to those found in emergency vehicles in order to increase the visibility of the vehicle while in processions.
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