The car has been around since 1886, but the funeral coach version of it didn’t appear until a couple of decades later. While electric motor-powered iterations of the hearse were supposedly already in use around Paris—warranting a story in the May 1907 issue of Scientific American—according to Kathy Benjamin, author of Funerals To Die For: The Craziest, Creepiest And Most Bizarre Funeral Traditions And Practices Ever, the very first unit with an internal combustion engine fitted onto the body of a horse-drawn hearse with a bus chassis appeared in 1909.
Commissioned by H.D. Ludow, a funeral director, and first used at the funeral of one Wilfrid A. Pruyn, moneyed clients were the first to use this new contraption—no surprise there since a comparable horse-drawn carriage then supposedly cost only a quarter of the motorized hearse’s price. However, as the cost of the motorized hearse dropped and the continued development of the internal combustion engines made them even more powerful, horse-drawn hearses were eventually replaced by their gasoline-powered counterpart by the 1920s, which reached speeds of up to 48kph thanks to their 30hp four-cylinder mill mated to a three-speed transmission.
By the 1930s, the hearse’s look had changed from its old horse-drawn carriage roots to the landau-style, limousine-like design made popular by funeral coachbuilder Sayers & Scovill Company (which still exists today).
In the Philippines, the first motorized hearse was delivered to La Funeraria Paz in 1946. Unfortunately, nothing else is known about it—like its brand or model. By 1960, Paz had expanded its fleet of hearses to 17 units, all sourced from the United States. In 1998, Paz introduced a fleet of Mercedes-Benz W210 E-Class-based hearses to its clients “in keeping with their high standards.” These were meant for the old rich with their refined tastes, and who couldn’t be seen going to their final resting place in a big and brash Cadillac or Lincoln funeral coach—much less in a Mercedes-Benz W123-based hearse commonly used by the masa.
As the Philippine car market is now inundated with full-size SUVs and vans, memorial companies now offer different kinds of vehicles to their customers. No longer are the choices limited to staid, somber models with strengthened commercial chassis. Nowadays, a vehicle like the Chevrolet Suburban bought from the showroom can be easily converted into a hearse. Of course, at nearly P5 million each, it’s highly impractical to do so. Hence, a memorial company called St. Peter Memorial Chapels scours the local secondhand market to look for good deals on such units. As a matter of fact, a friend of ours sold his Suburban to the company a few years ago, and now partly regrets doing so since it had a personalized license plate that bore his initials.
In 2014, St. Peter had at least 75 Suburbans, 570 Hyundai Starex vans and 15 Chevrolet Silverado pickups in its hearse fleet. The pickups were mostly used to transport flowers to the cemetery.
In a way, no matter how hard our life has been, when our earthly remains are permanently interred six feet below the ground, we can find comfort in the fact that we’re entering the afterlife in style.