Arlo Mudgett: From a rake to the last ride ...

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A couple of weeks ago I did a word origin as the days subject on my morning radio program. The word was "Hearse." The origin was a word that meant a triangular rake that became a holder for candles over a coffin in Latin called a Hirpex and in old French called Hers, adapted to old English and spelled as today "Hearse." Somehow the word became applied to the horse-drawn cart that transported the coffin. When we transformed into the automotive age, the word Hearse simply followed and the long wagon-like automobile used to transport the coffin is still called a Hearse.

That short radio show got me to thinking about folks who had the temerity to purchase a good old Cadillac Hearse and use it for personal transportation. I never knew anyone in Chester who did that, but when we moved to South Royalton there was a very individualistic older lady named Billie who had what looked to be an all-black 1953 Cadillac Hearse that she drove every day. I'm not certain about the vintage, could have been a '49 for all I could tell. It ran well and you'd see her making a daily run to the post office, the grocery store, or the feed store. The thing was perfect for hauling feed. It caused a lot of talk. Especially among kids. Completely fabricated tales about poor Billie and her Cadillac and Halloween began to emerge. The wildest story was about an open coffin containing a family member being kept on her open porch at Halloween. My friends and I busted that myth by riding our bicycles down to her house on Halloween. No lights on, no candles, no coffin. Busted.

Beyond using a Hearse for personal purposes, there is a following of enthusiasts. The entire class of Hearses and Flower Cars are known as Professional Cars, and they are loosely defined as passenger cars modified to be employed as Hearses, Ambulances, Service Cars, Flower Cars, and Limousines. They are collectible. They have an International Association of Professional Cars with over 1,200 members, a website and plenty of events. The aim appears to be like any other enthusiast group, to preserve the history and heritage of the vehicles that they find so fascinating. I have to say that I get it. They are unique vehicles that were purpose-built for specific jobs. The men and women who performed those jobs using those vehicles developed an affinity with certain models that exhibited character or had unique qualities that served them well. To want to preserve and celebrate that just makes sense.

When you think of an old Hearse or Ambulance in those terms, it removes some of the stigmas that some folks may want to attach to it. After all, it's a piece of equipment for those in the profession. When I think of a funeral director and his or her Hearse, it reminds me of the Hallett sisters that I knew on Cape Cod. At that time, some 40 years ago, Faith and Hope Hallett were attractive young funeral home directors in West Yarmouth, Mass. I was their radio advertising representative. I recall one visit as I attempted to leave, the front door was locked and I turned to look at the sisters. They both looked at me and in unison said: "Well Arlo, no one ever leaves." They had a wicked sense of humor. I was truly disappointed on the day that they took delivery of their new dark green Cadillac Hearse. They wanted to take me for a joy ride and I had another appointment that I couldn't miss. Bummer. But you see my point. They took a great deal of pride in their equipment.

Going back to the idea of folks using a Hearse for personal transportation, I think the reason that you don't see many of them being used in that way has to do with simple economics. Designed to offer an incredibly smooth and dignified ride, a Hearse is an exceptionally heavy vehicle, especially with its rugged rollers and a reinforced floor in the rear. They get horrific gas mileage. Because they aren't used daily, maintenance has to be high as well, so they are expensive to keep. Yes, an old Hearse is usually cheap to buy, and to a true enthusiast, that may make it worthwhile to collect. However, in the end, it still won't be a cheap ride. I still don't see how they got the current meaning from a word that meant a rake. I suppose it's just another part of the Hearse mystique.

The Morning Almanac with Arlo Mudgett can be heard Monday through Saturday mornings on radio stations Oldies KOOL FM 106.7, 96.3 and 106.5 and over Peak-FM 101.9 - 100.7. The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of the Brattleboro Reformer.

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