2012-03-26

Cultural Differences in the Hearse: American and Australian hearse

    I wrote this post about inside the hearse a while ago.  What surprised me was how few people knew about the hearse.   As a follow up I have been keeping an eye out for articles about the hearse and recently I came across this post about unusual hearses at the Chive.  It's about 'unusual' hearses, but what is interesting to me is picture 25, which although a little odd is quite a standard hearse to me.  This lead to me thinking about the cultural differences in hearse's between America and Australia and how this might indicate cultural differences in funerals as well.




    Firstly a bit of background on the hearses.  The Australian hearse is a modified car built by a third party manufacturer.  The funeral home will buy a lower-mid range car, such as a Holden Commodore, and get it modified by car customisation place.  They will also put new badges on it to make it appear like a fancier car.  A result of this is that hearses in Australia are very expensive.  One can pay over $100,000 AUD for a basic new hearse.  And they go for quite a bit of money second hand as there is really no alternative.

    In America hearses can be bought from car manufacturing companies such as Ford.  While I do not know the exact details I do know the car manufacturers themselves either sell hearses or hears kits.  Neither option is available in Australia.  This obviously results in cheaper hearses, with brand new ones going for upwards of $60,000 USD.

    Now we understand where the hearses come from we can look at how this might influence their design and use.  Because the Australian hearses are custom built from the ground up they can differ considerably between companies.  These differences may not be overt or noticeable to most people but those in the industry can tell just by a glance who built which hearse.  An example of this is W.N.Bull who were the first to use dual cab hearses (four doored body with all seats kept) and the first to use the 'dolphin' style roof.  Both of these features, especially the dual cab build, can now be seen in most Australian hearses.  However one thing W.N.Bull has kept to itself is the special spiral style chrome bars on the roof and inside the body.  These special bars were bought from overseas (probably Italy but I could never find out where exactly) deliberately so nobody else in Australia would have the same bars.  This can be seen with the two pictures below, figure 1 is of a Mannings hearse and figure 2 is of a WNBull hearse.  Although they are both dual cab black hearses you can see the subtle difference in the window and roof styles.  The Mannings hearse has no chrome border and less slope on the windows at the back.  However the main differences is the chrome bars on the roof and inside the back.  The WNBull hearse has a single row of round spiral bars while the Mannings hearse has two flat chrome bars.

Fig 1. Mannings hearse (dual cab) outside their office.
Fig 2. WNBull Hearse (dual cab) driving through the city.
    This shows how each company can make their hearses different and unique to their company.  Here something as simple as chrome bars separates the two companies from each other and from others.  The customisation of the hearses not only leads to an opportunity to individualise the hearses but a need to individualise them.  Companies often go to great lengths to make their hearse unique to the industry (such as WNBull buying bars from overseas).

    American hearses on the other hand are unique and customised but not to the same extent.  Because they can be bought from a manufacturer there is less difference between them.  Just as buying cars from the manufacturer are mass made and not very different from one another.  Thus I wonder about the need or desire to individualise the hearse in America, either for the company or the family.

    Another notable difference is the windows of the two.  In Australia the hearse will almost always have large glass windows on the back with no pillars, curtains or obstructions, as pictured in figures 1 and 2.  In America they tend to use either a limousine (figure 3.) or landau style back (figure 4. and figure 5.).

Fig 3. American hearse (single cab) with limousine style back.
Fig 4. American hearse (single cab) with landau style back.
Fig 5. American hearse (single cab) with landau style back.
    As you can see the limousine style back does have windows, but they are small and usually have a curtain behind them.  With the landau style the whole back is blacked out save the rear window and passenger windows.  The view of the coffin is partially obstructed or completely blocked in the American hearse while it is completely open and viewable with the Australian hearse.  Australian hearses do have the option to cover the windows with black leather or curtains, yet I have never seen or heard of them being used.  And the main point is to hid the coffin on long trips to or from the funeral, not to cover it during the funeral.  It should also be noted that these windows on the Australian hearse are custom made and very expensive.

    It is interesting how in Australia there is obviously a desire to see the coffin inside the hearse while on a funeral, that the mourners and public not only have no issue with it but want it to be visible.  Companies would not pay the cost of the large windows at the back if they could get away without them.  But they constantly pay for these large windows on new hearses.  Thus it is more than just acceptable to see the coffin in the hearse but something that people desire.  From this we can also assume that in America people do not want to see the coffin, they might like to see glimpses of it but not the whole thing and not clearly.  Look at figure 5. where the coffin is completely hidden save three small windows.  And even these windows do not offer complete vision as they have curtains as seen in figure 4.

    Another difference is that the American hearse are not dual cab, at least from what I can find on the internet.  This is quite interesting and strange as in Australia almost all hearses built since the midd 2000s have been dual cab.  It is quite common and expected now for the Australian hearse to be dual cab with really the only single cab hearses being second hand ones in the country.  I remember a small single cab hearse pulling into a cemetery in far Western Sydney and how we all looked at it.  One of the other funeral directors even commented on how he remembered those hearses before joking that they use to have to keep their coffees on top of the coffin or rest their arms on it as it came into the cabin.  Dual cab hearses cost a bit more but can allow for a lot more equipment to be carried in the hearse, or more importantly can carry more staff.  This means a company can have four staff traveling in the hearse which in turn saves on the need for another car.  This is rather important as a minimum of three are needed to carry and lower the coffin at the graveside, or a minimum of two to carry it at the crematorium.  While this is the minimum more make the task easier and sometimes three is not enough.  So being able to carry all these staff members in just one car which is going to the funeral anyway is a great way to save money, especially with long trips.   In America they tend to only have two seats in the hearse meaning they can carry a maximum of two staff.  As such I wonder how the American funeral system works.  If the mourners are more likely to carry the coffin in America or if they have another car on every funeral anyway.

    I am left thinking that the American and Australian funerals are very different things, from beliefs of the people to how the staff operate.  That in America the people do not want to see as much of the coffin (if any of it) as those in Australia who actually want to see a lot of it.  Also that in America the staff must have a different job, either not needing as many (due to the mourners being more involved) or that they have more cars on the funeral.  This shows that one can look at cultural differences with something as simple as a hearse.  That there can be such major differences based on wants and beliefs in a vehicle that essentially does the same thing.

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