If I were to ask you to transport a box approximately 6 foot in length 18 inches high and 18 inches wide in your station wagon, you would quickly discover it probably doesn’t fit, and you would need to source a different mode of transport. The box, as described, is a standard size coffin in the Australian Funeral Industry and yes the Australian Funeral Industry still uses station wagons, but with a twist?
The Australian hearse is typically built from a station wagon body, the vehicle is cut and extended, and the roof also removed and heightened to accommodate the range of different coffin sizes and flowers. These vehicles include Fords, Holdens, Mercedes Benz, Rolls Royce, you name it most makes of vehicles have been made into hearses. With extensions and vehicle customisations, the hearse can easily cost between $200,000 – 300,000 dollars.
So why is it that the funeral industry hasn’t considered using vehicles that don’t require this level of customisation and cost?
Australian funeral customs have primarily come from English funeral traditions. Of course in more recent decades, immigration has altered some of these traditions. Historically English churches often had graveyards within the church grounds. The coffin was simply carried from the church to the graveside. However, when the coffin needed to be transported further, a hearse was used.
My forebearers first started out on the Ballarat goldfields and as carpenters would later become furnishing undertakers. In the 1850s it was still a long way off from the automobile being invented. The horse and carriage was the transport of the day. The funeral carriage were all customs made from wood and glass, few were identical, yet all were black. Many of those with glass panels had either etched or gold gilded embellishments and others would be adorned with a crucifix or cross, symbolic of either an Anglican or Catholic Funeral. The engines were the horses, usually baring their black feather plumes and harness.
In the early part of the new century, vehicles quickly began to appear in the funeral cortege behind the horse-drawn carriages, and it didn’t take long before the horse was replaced with the automobile. From a child, I was told that the body of the horse-drawn carriage was placed onto the back of the car or ute, creating the new hearse.
Over the years, the vehicles have modernised and changed in shape and style, and the hearse body has become more stylised. Yet, one thing that has remained is the glass window sides.
Hearses around the world vary, some countries prefer clear glass-sided vehicles while others, including America, prefer a discreet view of the coffin. Some countries use Vans, with various degrees of modifications. There are evens small buses that can carry the coffin and family mourners. Although black is seen as the colour of mourning in most countries hearses can be any colour.
Of course, there are many specialty or even novelty type vehicles, these include Motorcycles with sidecars to carry the coffin, I have recently seen a Land Rover Defender, firetrucks, aged and historic cars, farm utes and trucks.
So what is the way forward and what might the vehicles of the future look like. We know that many vehicle manufacturers are moving away from the manufacture of station wagons, and there is a greater emphasis on smaller and greener vehicles.
With Cremation now accounting for 60-70% of all funerals, the funeral cortege is also less frequent as many families now choose to have single service funerals, where the hearse plays no significant role in the funeral process as there is no procession to the cemetery.
The people mover van provides a great alternative to expensive full customisation of the funeral vehicle and at a fraction of the cost.
As consumers across the board, yes including funeral service become more cost-conscious, all aspect of the funeral industry need to be reviewed for relevancy and cost-effectiveness. The hearse is a significant cost of the overall funeral cost.
So next time you see a hearse on the road, you may have a different view as to its relevancy.