A hearse is a funeral vehicle, a conveyance for the casket 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.
Hearses were originally horse-drawn, but silent electric motorised 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. 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.
Hearses in North America and Europe
Normally more luxurious brands of car are used as a base; the vast majority of hearses in the United States are Cadillacs and Lincolns. In Europe, Mercedes-Benz, Jaguar, Opel, Ford 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.
Since the working life of a hearse is generally one of light duty and short, sedate drives, hearses remain serviceable for a long time; hearses 30 years old or more may still be in service, although some funeral homes replace them at least once a decade. As of 2004[update], a new hearse in the USA usually costs in the range of $40,000 to $65,000.
Two styles of hearse bodywork are common. The older style is the limousine style; these have narrow pillars and lots of glass. These are more popular in the United Kingdom, among others. More popular in the United States is the landau style, with a heavily-padded leather or (later) vinyl roof, and long blind rear quarters, similarly covered, and decorated with large metal S-shaped bars designed to resemble those used to lower the tops on some horse-drawn coaches. It is common practice in the USA for the windows to be curtained, while in the UK the windows are normally left unobscured. Hearses resemble station wagons strictly because of the shape of the rear ends of conventional ones.
Until the late 1970s, it was common for hearses in the USA to be combination coaches which also could serve in the ambulance role; these were common in rural areas. Car-based ambulances and combination coaches were unable to meet stricter Federal specifications for such vehicles and were discontinued after 1979.
Due to the costs of owning an expense custom vehicle that sits idle “80 to 90 percent of the week”, individual funeral homes reduce costs by renting or utilizing a shared motor pool.
Info taken from Wikipedia, Historic Haunts, and other sources.