“Daddy, did you get the hearse with the windows in the back so the dead people can look out?” – Marissa Neddo, age 5
We at Lowe-Neddo Funeral Home recently purchased a new hearse and while most would first notice the color, make and model; the first thing my 5 year old saw were the large oval side windows of the casket area. “From the mouths of babes” I thought to myself as a small chuckle escaped and I struggled to contain the increasing laughter building inside which I knew would make her self-conscious. “No, Marissa, those windows are for you and I to look inside.”
Though a bit misguided, she asks a great question. Why do hearses have windows in the back? Why do they have landau bars, lanterns and lights on the sides? Why do we seem to have an almost innate fascination with them when we see them in person? And just why do we call them “hearses”?
To begin with, the word “hearse” comes from the word “harrow”, which is a large rake implement with metal fingers used to break up the ground. The first “hearses” were not vehicles, but rather metal frames with fingers that went around the casket so it could hold candles. Since the many metal fingers of the frame resembled the many metal fingers of the “harrow”, the frames became known as “hearses”. Over time, the term “hearse” was used for anything containing the casket and when that evolved to vehicles, the term “hearse” stuck.
The original vehicle to convey the casket to the cemetery was a horse drawn carriage, or “coach” (which is why hearses are also commonly called “funeral coaches”). The side windows, landau bars and lights were both functional and decorative elements designed to draw attention to the social event known as death. The hearse both notified the community of the death and reminded all that our time is finite. Over time, horses were replaced with engines and gas lights with electric ones, but the function remained the same. It conveys the dead to where they need to go, it notifies the community of the death, and it reminds us all of our blessing to be here, hence our typical fascination.
And that is how cars became “hearses” and why they have windows, lights and decorations. But just in case you want to look outside on the way to the cemetery during your own funeral, isn’t it good to know we’ve got you covered as well?
Enjoy the day and remember to make time to live, laugh and love.