Q. I will attend a funeral in a few days and plan to join the procession of cars to the cemetery afterward. I’m curious. When did the custom of funeral processions start – and how much does a hearse cost today?
Funeral processions go back to antiquity. In ancient Egypt, oxen pulled the coffins of the rich. Relatives walked in front of the funeral cortege and also trailed behind. In the typical funeral procession today, the lead vehicle is the hearse, which carries no passengers. Immediate family members follow, usually in a limousine. Friends and relatives bring up the rear either in their own cars or service sedans.
Other alternatives are also available these days. For example, motorcycle funerals, where a Harley Davidson pulls the hearse, have grown in popularity among bikers and fans. When ex- Navy Seal Chris Kyle, author of the bestseller American Sniper, was tragically shot and killed recently, an estimated 200 motorcycles, motor coaches and police vehicles joined the funeral procession in Texas. In contrast, cowboy funerals still capture the imaginations of some. Here, friends and relatives on horseback (and often a symbolic empty horse) lead the procession to the cemetery.
As for hearses, Alexander the Great’s solid gold coffin was transported in a gold carriage pulled by 60 horses in 323 BC. In Victorian times, hearses were often covered with black ostrich feathers – and had glass sides, allowing spectators to see the coffin inside.
These days, a hearse, which derives from the Middle French “herce” and the Medieval Latin “hercia,” can be anything from a Jaguar (if money is no object) to a Daimler Sovereign (Princess Diana’s hearse) to a flatbed truck. For serious traditionalists and people interested in pomp and circumstance, horse drawn hearses and mourning coaches are still available today, as well.
Rates for hearses are usually based on distance from the funeral home (or other funeral site) to the cemetery. For example, a big city funeral home might charge as much as $745 for a standard hearse driving within a 35-mile radius. Additional mileage is extra. Hearse prices online run anywhere from $150 to over $500. A limousine for the bereaved can range from $75 to over $500. At Elvis Presley’s funeral, no fewer than 17 white limousines followed the hearse.
Interesting sidelight: We’re likely to be seeing fewer funeral processions and hearses in the years ahead as more and more people choose cremation.
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Florence Isaacs is the author of several books on etiquette, including My Deepest Sympathies: Meaningful Sentiments for Condolence Notes a.... She writes two advice blogs for Legacy.com: Sincere Condolences and Widow in the World, a new blog for bereaved spouses and partners.
Image via Flickr Creative Commons / AndrewEick