I came here for remembrance. My sister, DaLinda Brown Clark, died last week. Cancer. Long struggle. But she went in peace.
We held a memorial service for her at Atlanta University Center before transporting her remains to New Orleans for entombment next to my parents. We don't "bury" people in New Orleans, which is below sea level. We entomb them in aboveground crypts.
We used a hearse and funeral cars in both places -- a hearse for the coffin and funeral cars, essentially limousines, to carry immediate family to services.
Such vehicles have always intrigued me, having seen or ridden in many of them as an altar boy at requiem Masses in my childhood and as a mourner as an adult.
All of those final rides, including the two-part trip for my sister, have been in Cadillac motorcars. I once thought that Cadillac was the only manufacturer of hearses, at least in the United States. I wasn't the only one with that misconception.
For example, I wrote an automobile review in the early 1980s panning a Cadillac Brougham sedan. It was an awful car, riddled with defects. But a New Orleans friend of mine, a Baptist minister who owned a Cadillac Brougham, was not amused. He sent me a note:
"You can put down Cadillac, now. But sooner or later, and for your sake, I hope it's later, you're going to ride in one." Such certainty! Cadillac would provide my last road trip, whether I wanted that ride or not.
Truth is, Cadillac does not manufacture hearses at all. It makes the chassis, the vehicle's underpinnings, on which hearses and limousines -- called "specialty" or "professional" cars in auto industry parlance -- are built.
The underpinnings are turned into hearses by coachbuilders and vehicle conversion companies such as Accubuilt Inc., of Lima, Ohio.
Accubuilt, which began in 1876 as the Sayers & Scovill Coach Co., is regarded as the world's leading builder of hearses and funeral vehicles. That is partly because of the legendary coach-building reputation of Sayers & Scovill, often referred to in the vehicle conversion business as "S&S."
The funeral cars and hearse in President Ronald Reagan's memorial services, built on chassis systems provided by both General Motors Corp.'s Cadillac division and Ford Motor Co.'s Lincoln group, were made by S&S.
For much of its 20th-century history, Cadillac was the dominant brand of chassis used by what has become Accubuilt. And even today, Accubuilt boasts that it is "Cadillac's largest and most experienced coachbuilder," a reputation that GM recognizes by fully warranting Accubuilt hearses, as if they were built by GM itself.
But in the 1990s, GM began changing many of its big cars -- Buick, Cadillac, Chevrolet, Oldsmobile (now defunct) and Pontiac models -- from rear-wheel-drive to front-wheel-drive. That shift, partly initiated for reasons of fuel economy, gave Ford and its Lincoln division more access to the specialty car business.
The huge Lincoln Town Car, whose platform is used for hearses and stretch limousines, remained rear-wheel-drive. Specialty-car fleet operators, whose services often involve hauling heavy loads, generally prefer rear-wheel-drive vehicles for that work. Think of it as the pickup truck principle. You want the drive wheels where the cargo bed and its load are -- in the rear.
I could not tell who made the Cadillac-based vehicles that carried my sister and her funeral entourage. There were too many people and flowers around the cars, and I certainly did not want to anger any of my family members or family friends by pushing flora aside to get a closer look. But a check with the funeral home later determined that they were S&S coaches built on Cadillac chassis systems.
Accubuilt now owns five of the nation's biggest hearse and specialty vehicle companies. Besides S&S, Accubuilt owns Superior Coach Company, Eureka Coach, the Miller-Meteor Co. and Vartanian Industries, the last of which specializes in building commercial and medical/ambulatory assistance shuttle vans.
Like S&S, Superior, Eureka and Miller-Meteor all specialize in hearse and limousine building, relying mostly on GM/Cadillac chassis systems. Their funeral coaches are elaborate in both construction and nomenclature. For example, Superior's Cadillac-based coaches are called the Sovereign and the Statesman. The company's Lincoln-based hearse is called the Diplomat.
And, hmm, Eureka has a Cadillac-based hearse called . . . the Brougham. Maybe that is the real reason I was unwilling to take a closer look at the name on the hearse in my sister's procession.
* Of interest: In researching this column, I came across a number of printed materials and Web sites concerning hearses, a k a funeral coaches, and their history. One of the best discoveries was a book, "American Funeral Vehicles: 1883-2003," written by Walter M.P. McCall and published by Iconografix. I commend it to your attention.