Innovations Breathe Life Into Hearse Industry
Commuting can be inconvenient and parking a pain, but like they say about birthdays: better than the alternative.
Which for most of us — whatever our brand loyalty in life — will be a final journey to the edge of eternity in a Cadillac or Lincoln. That’s because those two marques have the market cornered on American funeral livery, even if it’s not a line of business the Detroit automakers spend much time promoting.
At this somewhat macabre time of year, curiosity about the hearse business led me to Bob Mazzarella, a second-generation livery dealer at American Coach Sales in Cleveland whose territory covers Michigan, including a satellite office in Grand Rapids. Some 70 years into the family business of limousines for the living and various modes of transport for the deceased, he is steeped in the lore of funeral cars and their history.
Ohio has been the epicenter of the funeral coach industry for more than 100 years now, he told me, with most major manufacturers headquartered there. I guess historically we of the Motor City focused on the live clientele, while Ohio picked up the torch and focused on those who wanted to go out in style.
Another fun fact: Back before cars were commonly owned, most people could get around the neighborhood and urban areas via foot, bike or streetcar. But a trip to a far-flung cemetery posed problems. In the 1940s, when Mazzarella’s dad bought his first limo right out of high school, undertakers would sell seats in hired cars to mourners for 20 or 30 cents apiece, filling out the funeral procession with paying customers.
Fast-forward more than half a century and most of us own cars, but few grand enough for the pomp of a final farewell. There’s something about the dignity and tradition of a hearse that seems to comfort people, Mazzarella said.
“We could back up a pickup truck and haul off the box,” he said. “Or we can make a person’s last trip with great respect and tribute. People still want that sense of formality.”
But that’s not to say that the modern hearse is a staid and stodgy affair. The 2012 Lincoln MKT hearse, which replaces the venerable Town Car version, is downright rakish, with its grinning grille and sloped lines; there even are YouTube videos that pay it homage.
“It’s a whole new look for the funeral industry,” Mazzarella said. “A pretty exciting and fresh design.
“Another thing that has really gained popularity — in a comeback from days gone by — is a lot of glass. It really looks nice if the casket is draped in an American flag.”
Online hearse sales to overseas patrons are picking up, and while cremation is on the rise, it need not preclude a decorous last ride: The “urn enclave,” a sort of display option that mounts in the casket area of a traditional hearse, will secure cremains so the deceased and mourners are not deprived of the pomp of a procession.
While black and white are the top-selling hearse colors, Mazzarella said, options like silver, burgundy, gray and even gold are available. Other members of a funeral fleet might include passenger limousines, flower cars (reminiscent of the El Camino or Ranchero, but classier) and “service vehicles” — built on a minivan platform but with elegant touches like the landau bow, they’re used for picking up bodies and transporting them to mortuaries or crematoria.
It’s not a huge industry — only about 1,100 new coaches are produced each year at an average cost of $94,000 to $108,000, Mazzarella said. Beefed-up engine cooling, brakes, suspensions and other components handle the extra weight of the casket and occupants. But hearses are a good investment, with many making two, three or more laps around the leasing track, and older models are in hot demand by smaller mortuaries.
In addition to the common landau, coach makers advertise hybrids like an Escalade SUV coach and a stretch hearse with seating to accommodate family members wishing to travel with the casket.
“That one didn’t go over so well,” said Mazzarella. “It’s not a very comfortable ride.”
Riding in style
Indeed. I think most of us can wait till the last minute for a trip in a funeral coach, thanks anyway. Still, books are written about the history of funeral vehicles, collectors snap up vintage hearses, and modern industry innovations continue. Mazzarella and collaborators introduced a Mercedes-Benz version at this week’s National Funeral Directors Association expo in Chicago; the first nondomestic hearse he’ll be selling.
“There is a certain segment of customers that will really appreciate a Mercedes platform,” said Mazzarella. “So we’re stepping outside the box, if you will.”
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