Throughout the centuries, the deceased person’s journey to their resting place has always been an important symbolic as well as practical element of the process of the final farewell. Methods of transporting a body have evolved from the use of a basic slab of wood, the shrouded corpse balanced on top, in times before even coffins were utilized; through to hand-drawn biers, the early models like simple wooden stretchers, and later, more sophisticated wheeled versions (the attached photograph is an example, from 1907, of the parish hearse of St. Mary’s Church in Hickling, Norfolk, last used in 1951). These gradually evolved into horse-drawn hearses, often glass-sided and ornate, with black velvet curtains and polished brass fittings – for those families rich enough to afford such opulence for their dearly departed.
These days, the luxury limousine hearse is the most common method of transport for the coffin in a funeral procession, regardless of the social status of the deceased.
‘All our funerals include a hearse and one limousine,’ says Robert Lodge of Lodge Brothers, Funeral Directors in South West London, Middlesex and Surrey for over 200 years. ‘Barrow boy or barrister, we treat everyone the same. We always try to give the family exactly what they want.’
This includes doing their utmost, as all good funeral directors will, to accommodate more unusual requests for funeral transport. ‘Once we did a funeral where the family wanted the coffin brought to the cemetery in a tiny six-seater boat down the Thames from Sunbury to Mortlake – just myself, the deceased, and his close family,’ recalls Mr. Lodge. ‘It was beautiful: really restful and calm, and so much nicer than having to go through heavy traffic.’
The cortege itself is the public face of the funeral, and of course is most often seen on the road rather than the river. In our fast-paced road-rage-prone society, motorists and pedestrians alike will still usually treat a funeral procession with appropriate amounts of respect and patience…. Usually, but not always: many funeral directors have wry stories to tell of being sworn at, cut up by other motorists, not let out at junctions – even getting parking tickets on their hearses or limousines when they stop to collect the family!
Hearses can also occasionally be used to pick up the remains of the deceased upon notification by the family of a death – known in the trade as the ‘First Call’ vehicle. However, this is less common these days, as funeral directors prefer to keep the hearses for use at funerals only, and it is now more common to use a minivan or private black ambulance as their First Call vehicle (the cost of this too is fully included in the funeral price).
What to expect
On the day of the funeral, the hearse containing the deceased, plus the empty limousine, arrives at the family’s house to collect close family and transport them to the cemetery or church. This used to be for the practical reason that most people didn’t own their own car, but these days it has become a preference rather than a necessity. About eighty per cent of people choose to travel to the cemetery by limousine – although there is absolutely no stigma attached to mourners arriving at the funeral venue under their own steam should they so wish. It’s not a huge money saver to do this either, since it only costs about £30 less not to take advantage of the limo (to put this into context, the average cost of a funeral in the UK in 2009 is around £2000).
The drive itself can also provide a few moments of calm preparation for the emotion of the imminent funeral, and a chance for close family to have a little time together on what is likely to be a very hectic and tiring day. Although, if a family do choose to be picked up by limousine, it is important for them to carefully consider the logistics and ‘politics’ of the journey – in the case of a large extended family, will Uncle Jim be offended if he doesn’t get to travel in the first car when Uncle Pete has been invited to do so?
Traditionally the hierarchy of the cortege goes as follows: the hearse containing the coffin, with the flowers transported on the hearse roof (a ‘floral car’ used to follow behind, but these days these are rare, reserved usually just for a celebrity or a traveller funeral); then the limousine transporting close family, and, finally, another two or three cars’ worth of other relatives and friends.
There are other funeral transport options available, for those to whom the idea of the standard black hearse does not appeal; and in these days of more personalised funerals, this is increasingly common. You could hire a Land Rover to transport the coffin, a white Rolls Royce, or a customised MK1 Ford Granada, or even a white camper van or Volkswagen Beetle, for enthusiasts of the VW classics. If the deceased was a keen motorcyclist, a funereal motorbike with sidecar transporting the coffin is a choice growing in popularity. A good funeral director will always be more than willing to help research and organise unusual funeral transport. Their purpose is to try to best accommodate whatever the family wants to do, to make the funeral as personal and meaningful as possible, in as positive a way as possible. That said, however, they certainly would not object if the family decided to arrange the transport element of the funeral themselves, from websites such as the ones listed at the end of this article.
Whether it is a horse-drawn carriage, an American flatbed pick-up truck or a boat up the river, this final journey can always be planned to best suit the character of the deceased. But whatever the method of transport, it is of course always going to be a difficult time for family and friends of the deceased – so, next time you see a cortege pass through your high street or down the dual carriageway you’re on, spare a thought for the family in the limousine. You being held up by a few minutes is not exactly on the same emotional scale as what they’re going through – so help them make the day go as smoothly as possible by not indulging in any road rage.