My father was vain about his hearses. When he first opened his own funeral home he couldn’t afford a new hearse, so he bought a used Henney Packard combination hearse and ambulance.
Not this one, but similar
In those days the funeral home also operated as the emergency service, such as it was. If you needed to go to the hospital you phoned your funeral home of choice, one of three in our little town. While our living citizens finally moved past segregation, our dead did not; an African American undertaker owned one of the three, which left my father with a single rival. Curses flowed between the two - the upstart new boy in town, and the ancient undertaker who had an easy time of it until our arrival.
My father’s ambulance was equipped with a tank of oxygen and a first-aid kit and that was about it. Your swift ride to the hospital was free and a short one, probably down Main Street, around the town square and up the hill. Citizens soon stretched the meaning of emergency to be defined as a ride to the doctor’s office, the dentist, the pharmacy, even a trip to the ophthalmologist was not too much trouble. However, if, for ten or twenty years, my father taxied you to your appointments, loaned you a truckload of chairs for your fish fry and your daughter’s wedding, and you then didn’t return the favor by ensuring that your family knew that your single, final desire was to have him undertake the details of your demise, then oh good god. In his smooth Southern drawl, “That sonofabitch.” For weeks.
The day he pulled up in his shiny new Cadillac hearse, our town’s first white funereal vehicle, we admired it for his sake. I saw it from my bedroom window, which was right above the embalming room - and whose isn't - and ran out to meet the great white. My father hopped out and stood with his chest puffed out a bit, his hands jingled change in his pocket and he smiled with a general air of satisfaction. Nods of approval all around and then I requested a test ride around town. Off we went. I secretly nicknamed her Grace. She was a high performer.
The first time I saw a horse drawn hearse in a procession was the day Tony Blair resigned. Oh the exquisite irony. As I walked along the busy Finchley Road, traffic crept behind the carriage and by habit I stood still until it passed. Once an undertaker’s daughter…
I thought of my father and how much he would have appreciated the send off. Four beautiful black Friesians pulled the wooden carriage, the coffin visible through the etched glass. My pulse quickened. I’ve seen every type of coffin and casket imaginable, still, the sight threatens. One of the horses majestically turned its plumed head. Carriage lanterns flanked the coachman and flower rails full of streaming flowers rolled past. I don’t know if he was ever aware of the history of coffin transportation, but if so, I know he never witnessed anything like this.
“Well I’ll be goddamned.” That’s what he would have said.