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Making the final journey

Over the years, the way in which a deceased person is transported to their final resting place has altered – mostly due to the mode of transport available. In days gone by, mourners would simply carry the body themselves to the burial ground. Now, they are likely to be taken in a funeral director’s hearse.

When the wheel was invented, a body would be carried on a ‘bier’, a sort of flat wooden frame set on wheels. The word ‘hearse’ comes from the Anglo-Norman French word ‘herce’ from a harrow. Often the structure would include spikes to hold burning candles – which were thought to resemble the ‘teeth’ of a harrow.

Later, as people began to move further from home, dedicated roads, known as ‘corpse roads’ or sometimes ‘bier roads’, ‘coffin roads’ or ‘lynch ways’ were created to transport bodies. Most of these don’t exist as roads anymore but some survive as footpaths and still feature coffin stones – where people could lay the coffin down and rest for a while.

As folk began to decorate the hand-drawn hearses, they became heavier, so horses were then more often used to pull them along. In the 19th century, funeral carriages became more ornate, with mahogany carriages featuring intricate carvings and black velvet drapes. In Victorian times, glass-side hearses became a feature so people could see the coffin. In modern times, it is still usual for hearses to have large glass windows, so people can see the coffin and pay their respects.

Today if a family requests a horse-drawn hearse, we have firms we deal with who can arrange this.

With the introduction of motorised vehicles in the early 1900s, we began to see the first motorised hearses. These tended to be built around larger, more powerful, car chassis and, more than 100 years later, hearses used by funeral directors are often based on cars including Daimler, Volvo, Rolls-Royce and Mercedes-Benz. Here at Tester & Jones, our latest hearse is a Jaguar.

Over the years, we have also seen funeral barges. In 1806, Lord Nelson’s body was carried on The River Thames from Greenwich to Whitehall Stairs on a black-canopied funeral barge, which was accompanied by more than 60 boats.

Then, in 1965, after Churchill’s funeral service in London, his body was also transported down the Thames, this time on the MV Havengore. His body was then taken from Waterloo Station to Oxfordshire on a specially prepared train. The hearse van had been set aside three years earlier, specially for the funeral train. In the fields along the route and at the stations, thousands of people stood in silence to pay their last respects.

In the US, a funeral train was used to take President Lincoln’s body from Washington DC, where he was shot in 1865, back to Springfield, Illinois. The train took almost two weeks to make the 1654 miles journey, due to the numerous stops the train made to allow the public to say their final goodbyes.

Interestingly, a regular funeral train ran seven days a week from 1854 to 1900 (and then as needed until 1941) from the Necropolis Railway Station in London (near to today’s Waterloo) to Brookwood Cemetery. Situated in Brookwood, near Woking in Surrey, this cemetery was known as the London Necropolis; it is the largest cemetery in the UK and one of the largest in Europe. It was built in 1849 to house London’s deceased, at a time when the capital was finding it hard to accommodate its increasing population, of living and dead.

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