My hometown of Houston, Texas is not exactly a major tourist destination. The only legitimate, big time attraction we have is the NASA Johnson Space Center (which is super cool for anyone with space interests). If you dig a little deeper, though, we have some other more obscure points of interest such as the National Museum of Funeral History. Obscure doesn’t mean unworthy, though. Most people do a double take/head scratch when they first hear about it, but it is definitely a real place and, moreover, it’s a fascinating exhibit for funeral professionals, car buffs or anybody with a curious nature. A large part of their collection consists of hearses, making it a perfect destination for classic car enthusiasts. Click through if your dare!
I suppose I’m a little macabre because I will tour cemeteries just to check them out (during the daytime!). The older the better, with upright tombstones. Don’t get me started on the flat ones! Likewise, being a car guy, I love hearses. Always have. I’m not sure what it is, maybe the stately dignity and elegance. It’s the car nobody wants to use, but inevitably do eventually. They are big, which ties into my general love for big cars. I also have a thing for station wagons and they are kind of the ultimate wagon. They often are Cadillacs, another plus for me. And the really old ones, especially, are amazing examples of craftsmanship.
At the risk of spoiling the surprises for anyone who might go there someday, I’ll show most of their collection. We’ll go through them in roughly chronological order. The museum-provided information is not always real detailed and only sporadically provides the history of the cars, which I will pass on where available.
1916 Buick with body by Sayers and Scovill. As we will see, many of these early motorized hearses feature sides made of carved oak, continuing the style that had been popular on expensive horse-drawn hearses. It has a 40hp six cylinder engine with an early electric starter, introduced on Buicks in 1914.
Sayers and Scovill (a.k.a S&S) is the oldest continuously operated funeral coach builder in the U.S., having started in the 1870’s long before automobiles. You can still buy a Cadillac XTS-based hearse from them today.
The casket in the back of the Buick is itself a showpiece: an ornate cast bronze behemoth in the Italian Renaissance style.
The early motoring age was a curious time, when people were still figuring out the best ways to use this new technology. One inventive use, which obviously didn’t persist long term, is the funeral bus. This is a 1916 model based on a Packard chassis and is said to be the only known surviving example. The bus obviated the need for a whole funeral procession by carrying the casket, pallbearers and up to 20 mourners. Great idea!
The story told is that this hearse-truck was in use in San Francisco and one day had a full load of passengers when climbing a steep hill. It tipped backwards, lifting the front wheels off the ground, overturning the casket and spilling the passengers to the back of the truck. One can imagine the dignified ladies in their long dresses thrust into very undignified positions. Needless to say, that was the end of its funeral duties. It was discovered decades later still in California by a funeral director who knew what it was and had it restored.
Note the solid rubber tires, as all trucks back then were equipped. The ride must be brutal, but then it only has a top speed of about 12mph!
Here is the centerpiece of the whole place, in my opinion. The body was built by Rock Falls Manufacturing Co., which began building (horse drawn) hearses in the 1870’s. This is a 1921 model, but the museum info doesn’t specify what brand of chassis it has.
The body has six types of hand-carved wood. Rock Falls went out of business in 1925, just a few years after this was made. Given the craftsmanship displayed, it is not hard to imagine how the builders of these spectacular beauties may have had a hard time turning a profit.
1924 Ford Model TT (Model T truck) with body by Hoover. While the body is also carved oak, it doesn’t pop quite as much with a monochromatic paint treatment, in my opinion. This vehicle was used as an active hearse for 50 years in North Carolina.
1929 Studebaker with body by Superior. This Stude exemplifies the crossover between hearses and ambulances common up through the ’60’s. The body makers usually built both hearses and ambulances because the vehicles were quite similar. Sometimes a single vehicle would be used as both. The Studebaker here had removable leaded glass windows in the rear that would be changed out when switching duties.
Superior Coach Co. started building hearses in 1925 and are still a major builder today (albeit as part of a conglomerate that also includes S&S). Of course, they don’t use Studebakers anymore, just Cadillac XTSs from what I can find.
Years ago, funeral homes in many communities also provided ambulance service. In the days before modern pre-hospital paramedic treatment, an ambulance required a stretcher, a seat for the attendant and not much else. The stretcher and seat could be easily cleared out and a casket put in. The museum info didn’t indicate what the tray above was for, but I believe it was for carrying flowers from the funeral. Why it is present in ambulance mode, I couldn’t say. The museum’s Studebaker was said to have been in active use for 24 years and is unrestored.
The museum’s Rolls Royce was impressive and looks likely to be in original condition. There was no placard displayed, so I’m not sure of the year or any other history. I’d guess 1930’s but any expert Roller spotters out there feel free to chime in.
These old pre-war Classics are always neat to see. They look much bigger in person than they do in pictures.
1935 Studebaker Dictator with body by Superior. Superior used Studebaker chassis exclusively into the 1930’s. They slowly branched out, building their first Cadillacs in 1938. Studebaker had some of the coolest names for their models, such as Big Six, Champion, Commander, Scotsman and several other unique and evocative titles. Dictator might not have been their best choice, especially in the 1930’s era of fascists and other oppressive and aggressive world leaders. They wisely dropped the model name after 1937. This example has been restored.
1938 Packard Eight with body by Henney. The Henney Motor Co started in the horse drawn era (without the Motor in their name) and built a variety of hearses in the earlier motoring era. They became known as the “Packard builder” from 1937, when they started an exclusive relationship with the automaker. They only used Packards and they were the only company Packard provided commercial chassis to. Hearse aficionados consider the Henney Packards to be some of the best designed and built hearses ever. Being exclusive with Packard was a strategy for success until the 1950’s, when Cadillac began to dominate the hearse market as they did the general luxury car market. When Packard stopped building a commercial chassis in 1954, Henney went out of business, since recent poor sales had left them with no money to design a new body for a different chassis. Packard didn’t last much longer. It merged with Studebaker in 1953 and then stopped building a distinct line of cars in 1956. A moment of silence for Packard, please…
It’s too bad car companies don’t get funeral services like people do, because Packard would have been worthy of a great one.
The 1938 flower car model with a corrosion-resistant stainless steel deck was a new innovation for Henney and other makers quickly copied it. Funerals had generally used open touring cars to haul flowers to the grave site in a funeral procession. As the large, four door convertibles dropped in popularity, a purpose-made vehicle for flowers was a natural for the higher end funeral business. Flower cars almost always have a simulated lowered top at the rear, which started as a way to replicate the look of the familiar touring car but became a flower car convention and is still seen on new ones today.
1939 LaSalle with body by Superior. This beautiful hearse looks restored, though the museum doesn’t specify. It was in active use for 23 years in Wyoming. Most here are probably familiar with Cadillac’s junior companion make, which started in 1927. They were always well styled, with the late 30’s models being my personal favorites. I love the skinny grille, especially with the floating teardrop headlights. 1940 was the final year for LaSalles, which is actually represented in the museum with a nice black sedan. It’s not a hearse, though, so I’m not sure why they have it. Perhaps it represents the sedans used to carry the family in funerals.
1940 Ford truck. There was no placard on this hearse. It looks like a combination ambulance/hearse and judging from the interior has not been extensively restored.
1951 Cadillac with body by Superior. This is probably my favorite car in the museum. There were no details given on its service history or any restoration. It was the only vintage Cadillac there, surprising to most people who probably associate hearses with Caddys. I love Fifties Cadillacs. Paul ,of course, would prefer a ’55! The lack of Cadillacs actually makes sense, though, since Cadillac didn’t become the dominant hearse car until at least the 50’s
If I could be transported to my final resting place in a car like this, I’d consider myself very fortunate. When my grandmother died in 1989, she was driven in the funeral home’s black 1972 Cadillac. There may have been some people who thought, “Why is their hearse so old?” To me, I thought it was glorious.
Not surprisingly, there are funeral providers nowadays who can rent you an antique hearse for your funeral, for those (like me) who would want one.
The WTF factor is off the charts with this one. Apparently, the Japanese are not to be out done in ornate hearses. This is listed in the museum as a modified 1972 Toyota Crown station wagon. However, it is definitely from the 74-79 generation of JDM Crowns.
A quick internet search reveals lots of examples of this style, such as this modern one. The hearses are equipped with outside speakers and play music during the funeral procession.
1973 Mercedes. The builder of this hearse is not specified, but it is very nice and presumably represents a typical large European hearse. It was donated by OGF Paris, a large funeral organization in France. The hearse has historical interest because it was used in the funeral of Princess Grace of Monaco in 1982. Makes me want to watch To Catch A Thief tonight!
The interesting thing I noticed about this hearse is that it has a back seat, unlike most American ones. It also has a column shifter, which I didn’t realize was available on any Mercedes at that time.
You might have noticed the skeleton couple in the background. Don’t worry, they are just figures. The museum naturally caters to many folks in the funeral business, so the overall tone of the place is subdued and respectful. As a matter of policy, the museum doesn’t feature any ghoulish displays or decorations. The only exception is a small section on Mexican Day of the Dead traditions. They also have done special “haunted” events around Halloween , so they are not entirely mirthless.
Besides the 1951, here is the only other Cadillac in the museum: a 2003 model by Sayers and Scovill (S&S). It was used to carry the caskets in the California segments of the state funerals of both Presidents Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan.
1982 Range Rover Popemobile by Ogle. The Funeral Museum has a number of exhibits besides the hearses such as Egyptian embalming; funerals and mementos of famous people; and traditions and pageantry of the funerals for Popes, of which this vehicle is a part. No it’s not a hearse, but was used to carry a very much alive John Paul II on his visit to Great Britain in 1982.
Another section covers funerals of Presidents. My favorite exhibit was this very detailed model of the rail car and hearse used to transport Abraham Lincoln’s body to his burial site in Springfield, Illinois. The rail car was called the “United States” and was built in 1864 for use by the President but he never actually took any trips in it, until after the assassination. After the funeral, it was taken out of government service and used by the railroad. The trip west took 20 days and allowed thousands of citizens to participate a little bit in the event in that era long before TV or radio.
As you may have seen on the news, the spirit of this event was replicated last fall when President George H.W. Bush passed away in Houston. Following his funeral in Houston, he was taken by train to College Station, Texas where his library and family cemetery is.
In the public figure section, one item would be of interest to gearheads. They displayed a replica of George Barris’s casket, the original obviously not being available for viewing anymore. Yes, his casket actually had Batmobile wings!
At the time I took these photos last year, the museum had a temporary exhibit called “A Tribute To Roy Rogers”. I couldn’t figure out how it had much connection to funerals, other than the fact that he is deceased. It did have one item that interested me: his customized Western-themed 1963 Pontiac Bonneville.
Western-themed might be an understatement. The interior featured hand-tooled leather, a saddle, silver dollars, rhinestones and pistols. Lots of pistols. See how many you can count!
Well that’s about it for the National Museum of Funeral History. It really is an interesting place, which you can see more about on the museum’s website if you are interested. They occasionally host car shows, one of which I will be featuring in a CC article soon. Stay tuned if you want more hearse excitement!