Hearse of a Different Colour – An Irishman’s Diary about the strange etymological story of how an agricultural implement turned into a funeral car


Consulting the old French republican calendar recently (on November 10th, or 20 Brumaire as it would have been in the 1790s), I noted that the day in question was dedicated to the “Harrow”.

This was in keeping with the revolutionaries’ scheme whereby seven-day weeks and religious feast-days were abolished in favour of a metric system based on France’s rural economy, with every tenth day named for a farm implement, and plants and animals celebrated in between.

Thus, with logical development, the month of Brumaire progressed from the Plough (day 10) to the Roller (day 30), with Harrow Day in between.

But of course the word isn’t “harrow” in French, as I noticed for the first time: it’s herse. So I wondered if there was a connection between this and the English word for a funeral car. And sure enough, fascinatingly (to me anyway), they turn out to be the same thing. The cross-over between the two meanings, which dates back centuries, was via a framework used for holding church candles.

The tines on which the candles were stuck pointed upwards, obviously, whereas the pins of a harrow point down. But they shared a rake-like appearance, so that in time the agricultural herse, later hearse, crossed over into ecclesiastical use.

Also, these candle-holders tended to feature in funerals and, from the 16th century on, as decorations on graves. Sometime after that, the meaning extended to the decorative biers on which coffins were placed and from there, eventually, to the funeral vehicles themselves.

My Concise Oxford English Dictionary seems to have forgotten the ecclesiastical meaning. But de Bhaldraithe’s English-Irish Dictionary has not. It lists two kind of hearse: the vehicle and the “taper-hearse”, or cliath coinneal.

I don’t know if Patrick Kavanagh knew all this when he wrote his poem To the Man After the Harrow. Whether he did or not, his lines are suitably preoccupied with the intersection between heaven and earth, in “the black Eternity of April clay” from which next spring’s crop will emerge.

As he advises himself: “Forget the worm’s opinion too/Of hooves and pointed harrow-pins,/For you are driving your horses through/The mist where Genesis begins.”

But where, I hear the actors and musicians among you asking, does the word “rehearse” come into all this? Well, I’m glad you brought that up, because yes, that too originally meant to re-harrow, or go over something, and was also used of recitations in churches. Only in the late 16th century did it spread to drama. So Shakespeare was at the head of the curve, as usual, when in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, he has Quince say: “Come, sit down, every mother’s son, and rehearse your parts”.

The Canadian rock star Neil Young knows all about rehearsing, clearly. What he knows about harrows I can’t say, although his lyrics frequently touch on agricultural themes, as when he sings “in the field of opportunity, it’s plowing time again”. But Young has also participated in that great American tradition of writing love songs about cars. And his contribution to the genre was unusual, if not unique, because the vehicle he romanticised was a hearse.

In the early 1960s, Young’s first band The Squires used as their tour-car a 1948 Buick Roadmaster that had formerly served an undertaker. They called it “Mort”, wittily, and this was doubly apt, because the car must was on its last legs.

It left them stranded somewhere in Canada once and later, when it broke down again in California, Young returned the compliment by abandoning it on the side of a road.

He must have been haunted by the memory, however. A decade later, by now enormously successful, he wrote “Long May You Run” in the car’s honour, remembering its “chrome heart shining/In the sun” and expressing affectionate hope that it had been resurrected in some Californian paradise: “Maybe the Beach Boys/Have got you now.”

That’s not the only hearse to have achieved US celebrity, although most of the others earned distinction via their main role, for carrying famous remains. The white Cadillac used for Elvis Presley’s funeral in 1977 was one such, and would likely be a museum exhibit today were it not for an ironic fate that combined the different historic meanings of ‘hearse’. For several years after its Memphis cameo, the car continued to work in the funeral business. Then in 1984, the owner lent it to someone in Florida. While being driven on the motorway there, the engine caught fire. And yes, the hearse was cremated.

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