A history of hearses, plus the tale of the man who set Elvis’s hearse on fire

By: Justin Nobel | Date: Sat, March 3rd, 2012

Recently a British reverend attached a custom sidecar to a Suzuki motorcycle and hit 120 miles per hour, setting what he claims is a record for the world’s fastest hearse.

In Japan, hearses come in two styles, Foreign style and Japanese style, in which the rear area of the hearse is modified to resemble a small, ornate Buddhist temple.

Motorcycle hearses have become tremendously popular in the United States too, with companies that cater to this niche funeral crowd popping up across the country. “A motorcycle hearse makes a statement,” says the website of Delaware-based Delmarva Motorcycle Hearse Company.

These days hearses take various extravagant forms. The word initially comes from the Middle English word herse, which referred to large ornate candleholders placed atop coffins; sometime during the 17th century people began using the word to refer to the horse-drawn carriages that carried caskets to the grave during funeral processions. The first hearse in the US with an internal combustion engine appeared in 1909, at the funeral of Wilfrid A. Pruyn. The undertaker, H.D. Ludlow, commissioned a vehicle to be built from the body of a horse-drawn hearse and the chassis of a bus. By the 1920s motorized hearses were the norm. In the thirties the longer Landau-style hearse was introduced, with its sleek, limousine-like form, a style that remains popular today. No car manufacturers make hearses directly; to turn a luxury car into a hearse a circular saw is used to cut the car into two halves, which are then fitted back together on a longer chassis. The largest manufacturer of hearses in the United States today is a company called Accubuilt Inc., based in  Lima, Ohio. A typical hearse goes for about $60,000.

Other Great Reads: The tragic case of an Amish funeral procession disaster

Through the 1970s ambulances often served double duty as hearses, until legislation restricted this. A few cities experimented with trolley or subway car hearses but the practice never caught on. Today in the US most hearses are luxury cars like Cadillac, Lincoln or Mercedes. In Japan, hearses come in two styles; “Foreign style”, similar to American hearses, and “Japanese style”, in which the rear area of the hearse is modified to resemble a small, ornate Buddhist temple. Within this style there are regional differences. For example, in Tokyo style only the upper half of the hearse is decorated, while in Nagoya style  the upper and lower halves are decorated; Kansai style leaves much of the hearse undecorated and in Kanazawa style the hearse body is painted red—in other styles it is black. Garish hearses are common in several Asian countries. After the death of Kim Jong Il last year in North Korea a massive mid-1970s Lincoln Continental hearse was used, “one of the largest, most indulgently over-the-top Detroit barges to ever hit the street,” according to one news blog.

Other Great Reads: A guide to funeral processions

In America, hearse car clubs have become common. Hearse lovers meet regularly to take their hearses on long leisurely drives. A Michigan-based hearse club called Just Hearse’N Around organized a procession of hearses in Hell, Michigan last year in an attempt to set the Guinness World Record for the longest procession of hearses; they were successful. Several hearse websites provide details on how to purchase and maintain a hearse, or serve as outlets for telling hearse stories. Many of these stories involve hearses that run out of gas or breakdown in exceptionally remote, or busy, places, putting the hearse owners in compromising situations. The best hearse story surely belongs to a man named Chuck Houston, President of Houston Brothers, Inc., a funeral car dealer in Marietta, Georgia. In the late 1970s the company, then owned by Chuck’s father, came into possession of what at the time was the most famous hearse in the world, Elvis’ hearse, an all-white 1977 Miller-Meteor Landau, made from a downsized Cadillac chassis. Chuck’s father cherished the hearse and loathed loaning it out, but during one particularly busy time in 1984 he was forced to do just that. It was up to Chuck to drive the hearse to the funeral home that needed it, in Miami.

“Another employee and myself, both of us about 21 at the time  took off toward Miami on I-75 around 7:00 pm,” relates Chuck. “We ran out of gas just north of Valdosta, GA…we walked about two miles to the next exit, bought a can and some gas and started back up the north bound return ramp toward Elvis’s hearse. Before reaching the highway a Lowndes County Sherriff stopped us, asked where we were going and called us a cab. We got her going again and headed for the gas station to fill her up…Just as the weigh station came into sight the engine cut off. I dropped her into neutral while traveling around 65 mph and turned the ignition. When I did, fire shot out from under the hood on both sides. I eased her to the shoulder next to the weigh station return ramp and my friend and I jumped from the hearse as the fire engulfed the front end…A truck driver appeared with a fire extinguisher but it was too late. Neither of us wanted to get close for fear the hearse would blow up. So there we stood and watched as Elvis’s hearse went up in flames.”

One thought on “A history of hearses, plus the tale of the man who set Elvis’s hearse on fire”

  1. Dr. Frybrain

    Just Hearse’N Around set the Guinness World Record for the largest parade of hearses in 2011.

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