According to Detroit historian Silas Farmer, the use of horse-drawn hearses in the city started about 1830. “Prior to their introduction, coffins were carried to the grave upon biers or bars, borne sometimes upon the shoulders, and often carried by hand,” he wrote. “At the funeral of a person of wealth, the bearers were provided with long white linen scarfs. These scarfs were tied with linen cambric, which, according to custom, was used for the bosoms of the shirts which the bearers were expected to have made from the scarfs.” As hearses became the norm, the more successful undertakers maintained their own conveyances and stable of black steeds; others rented them from local liveries as needed.
The first use of an automobile in a funeral procession in Detroit occurred in 1910, when the family of Henry Stevens, a gentleman involved with the city’s emerging auto industry, asked the Wm. R. Hamilton Funeral Home on Lafayette to convey the deceased by motor vehicle. It just so happened that the undertaker had recently bought a Grabowski panel truck and was already exploring the possibility of switching over from his prized hearse team to a motorized conveyance; the Stevens family’s request merely speeded up the changeover. Although conventional horse-drawn hearses would continue to be used for several more years (and are still occasionally used today), by the 1920s the motorized “funeral coach” (the preferred term among undertakers) was the norm.
The J. J. Sardowski Funeral Home on Detroit’s west side was one of the first local undertakers to replace horse power with horsepower, providing a stretch limousine (shown here) to take corpse and family to the church and the cemetery in comfort and style. A funeral coach is a luxury sedan – typically either a Cadillac, Lincoln, or Buick – that has had its chassis cut in half and an elongated body put in place by one of the custom shops that specialize in such work. No matter how the deceased has been transported to the grave over the years, the ominous sight of someone’s last ride has always spooked children, hence the rhyme, “Don’t you ever laugh when a hearse goes by . . . ’cause you might be the next to die.”
About the author: Richard Bak is the author of more than twenty-five books, including A Place for Summer: A Narrative History of Tiger Stadium (Wayne State University Press, 1998), Cobb Would Have Caught It: The Golden Age of Baseball in Detroit (Wayne State University Press, 1991), and Turkey Stearnes and the Detroit Stars: The Negro Leagues in Detroit, 1919–1933 (Wayne State University Press, 1995).
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