Chevrolet Impala Hearse

To the last rest – with style

Chevrolet Impala, year of construction 1978
blue metallic, 69.000 km driven

In 1978, the Eugen Rappold car bodyshop in Wuppertal, Germany, offered its assistance to undertakers in an advertising campaign. The bodyshop, which specialised in the construction of hearse, offered to solve "the transport problems" of the trade "in an elegant way" – for example by means of a Chevrolet Caprice or a Chevrolet Impala. A model of the latter type, first registered on May 24, 1978, is completing our funeral car collection since March 1993. In addition to the three funeral carriages on the first floor and outside the permanent exhibition, the light blue Chevrolet Impala immediately catches the eye. The American car vividly conveys the change, but also the tradition of the funeral business in the younger industrial age. Funeral cars are technically speaking special vehicles for a particular cargo. This special purpose generally determines the shape of this vehicle right up to the present day.

The Chevrolet Impala in the museum courtyard
The Chevrolet Impala in the museum courtyard
© Museum für Sepulkralkultur, Kassel, Bildarchiv

In addition to hearses, in earlier times and still today the transport of the deceased was not always done with vehicles, which were exclusively used for that purpose. In rural areas, plain rural ladder cars were used as funeral carriages in some cases until the 1970s. In addition to land transport, the transport of a deceased persons is also possible by rail, air or ship and is regulated by international agreements. The fact that the transport of coffins and urns is strictly regulated worldwide also shows that for many people it is of great importance where they or their relatives are buried. Most of them would like to have their relatives close by even in the event of death, or they wish to be buried in their native soil. The history of today's hearse can be traced far back into the 17th century.


Longer travel routes


Initially, special vehicles for burial were reserved for higher social classes. Others resorted to means of transport that were also common in everyday life, such as ladder cars and the like. The fact that the more affluent group of people traveled a lot, for example, because of government business, their lifestyle or the administration of their possessions, it was always possible to die on the way. And since many people of higher social rank determined the location of their burial place already during their lifetime, the corpse had to make a somewhat further last journey every now and then. The obligation to escort the corpse to the burial place in accordance with its status, i.e. by means of richly equipped horse-drawn carriages, was soon recognized as an opportunity to demonstrate the rank and importance of the deceased to a broad public one last time very clearly. As a result of the population and urban growth at the beginning of the 19th century, the hearses became an indispensable requirement for the rest of the population as well, and from then on they were available to everyone. The relocation of the cemeteries to the edge of the settlement areas considerably extended the usual distances from the place of death to the burial site. Carrying the coffin to the cemetery – a last service of friendship and love to the deceased – thus became completely unfeasible. The transfer by (horse) cart replaced this custom and became an essential part of the burial. In accordance with the need for representation, in larger communities the citizens got hearses by the municipality that was responsible for the funeral service at the time – according to their taxable income.


Privatisation and turning on the color


At the end of the 19th century, the funeral system was finally privatised. The newly emerging profession of the undertaker took over the differentiated service system, which from then on was subject to the laws of the free market. This meant that everyone could choose his or her burial class according to his or her own wishes and means. The clearest distinguishing feature of the funeral carriages, whether open or closed, was the black paint and equipment, which even became a requirement in the Berlin Police Ordinance of August 16, 1872. The dark color and the – depending on the price class – gilded decorations such as crosses, wreaths and palm branches left no doubt as to the purpose of these vehicles. After the black funeral carriages and later the predominantly black funeral cars, the trend towards color gradually prevailed. As a result, of course, they are not necessarily immediately conspicuous as hearses in everyday life, and many still have the image of the black hearse in their minds. The first deviations from the conventional mourning color can be observed in Germany in the late 1960s of the 20th century – a trend that the Pollmann Karosserie company in Bremen, Germany, claimed to have established for itself. Presumably this development was based on US-American models.


From craft object to industrial product


While the coffin carriages were initially custom-made by cartwrights and cabinetmakers, today's funeral cars are industrial products manufactured in large series. In accordance with the special purpose, these are then converted by expert coachbuilders according to corresponding design drafts. Only in the basic vehicles the typical technological, economic, social and aesthetic developments of the time can be seen.

Like many people, funeral directors define themselves through their cars. 5657 cc capacity and 170 hp of the Chevrolet Impala may seem appropriate for a hearse, given the frequency of longer transfer journeys, but even in the early 1970s American vehicles with their enormous fuel consumption were no longer considered contemporary. German coachbuilders, who specialised in conversions of hearses, took on the station wagons that were difficult to sell in Europe. The "giant boxes", which were rather impractical on European roads and whose dimensions were adapted to the North American traffic system, were well suited for conversion into hearse. For in addition to the relatively low prices of the US cars, their excessive proportions offered enough space for the coffin and the elaborate chassis extension required for smaller cars was eliminated. Thus, a funeral home received an exclusive, representative, but also eye-catching means of transport for a reasonable price.


Between hiding and attracting attention


The Chevrolet Impala is a particularly impressive demonstration of the problems facing the funeral industry today. The tabooing of this field of activity requires the utmost discretion and restraint on the one hand. For example, foreign undertakers in Koblenz were advised to park their vehicles in multi-storey parking lots and not, as lamented in 1992, in front of the registry office, where their sight would disturb wedding ceremonies. On the other hand, this profession, like many service providers, is subject to competitive constraints that require a certain amount of advertising. The available resources are severely restricted by law for reasons of consideration for the mental situation of the relatives. The transfer vehicle is (beyond its practical use) one of the few means by which the funeral undertaker get the most effective advertising medium and a feature which distinguishes him from the competition. The dilemma between market presence and inconspicuousness leads to a bias that is clearly evident as an aesthetic discrepancy in the American car. The basic vehicle is rare in Germany, unusual in its appearance and dimensions and therefore striking. In contrast, its intended use is visually reduced as much as possible by the color of the bodywork and the imposed coffin space.

On the occasion of a funeral, however, it is possible to show with a few simple steps that a hearse is more than just a technical device. The curtains stretched on Resopal panels can be easily removed and allow a view into the "loading space" that complies with DIN 75081. The interior of the coffin room, which is hermetically sealed off from the driver's cabin, is carpeted to the side of the coffin sliding platform. Two bronze lanterns on the shelf towards the driver's side serve for illumination. A fundamental change in value is reflected in this reduced festivity, which usually unfolds only in the privacy of the cemeteries. All processes connected with the death event – from dying in hospital to the funeral – are largely mechanised and usually do not take place in public. The splendor of earlier funeral ceremonies, which were celebrated as social events with all their social problems, was only used in isolated, anachronistic settings. They now play only a minor role in the solution of transport problems.


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Arbeitsgemeinschaft Friedhof und Denkmal e.V.

Zentralinstitut für Sepulkralkultur

Museum für Sepulkralkultur

Weinbergstraße 25–27
D-34117 Kassel | Germany
Tel. +49 (0)561 918 93-0

Die Beauftragte der Bundesregierung für Kultur und Medien
Hessisches Ministerium für Wissenschaft und Kunst
Kassel Documenta Stadt
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