By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer
France’s first bicycle hearse has come to the streets of Paris. A local undertaker has modified her bike to meet legal specifications for body transportation. The funeral industry arose in the 19th century amid the Civil War.
An undertaker who does business in Paris has brought a small but growing trend to the streets of France: a hearse powered by a cargo bike. Bicycle hearses are quickly catching on in other European nations like Denmark and Switzerland for those who wish to have a more “green” funeral than traditional funeral practices can offer.
The Parisian undertaker, 51-year-old Isabelle Plumereau, said in an interview with Reuters that everyone walks at the same pace behind the hearse, hearing one another and the sounds of nature, which she believes is the best way someone can console themselves.
Much of France’s population, just like much of the population in the United States, is Christian and, therefore, Christian funeral practices are commonly followed. In his video series Death, Dying, and the Afterlife: Lessons from World Cultures, Dr. Mark Berkson, Professor of Religion at Hamline University, details how the funeral industry came to light and what it entails.
“The modern Christian American way of death, which is also shared by Americans of many other traditions, has been characterized by professionalization and medicalization,” Dr. Berkson said. “For many Americans, death has become the domain of specialists, and families are no longer as directly involved in preparing the bodies of their loved ones, burying them, or organizing an opportunity for collective mourning.
“Instead, the process has been delegated to a funeral industry.”
These days, funeral directors help families, and other loved ones, of the deceased to prepare the body for burial. This often involves bathing and dressing the body; using embalming fluid and mortuary make-up, if an open casket funeral is requested; and transporting the body to its viewing place and, ultimately, to its final resting place, usually in a funeral procession with loved ones. The funeral procession is where the hearse comes in.
“For many Americans, the experience involves following a hearse, [which] carries the coffin of the deceased, in a long line of cars with illuminated headlights to a nearby graveyard,” Dr. Berkson said. “Processions for major political or military figures and other famous people can be more elaborate, sometimes drawing large crowds and providing opportunities for collective outpourings of grief or expressions of respect for the dead.”
For example, around 800,000 people lined the streets for President John F. Kennedy’s funeral procession.
A Difficult but Practical Matter
How did funerals become what they are today? According to Dr. Berkson, the change came about in the 19th century as a result of the Civil War.
It’s believed that the Civil War killed 750,000 Americans, or 2.5% of the nation’s population at the time. During the war, with the death toll mounting, one very difficult but necessary question arose: What could possibly be done about all the corpses? The families of those killed in action would want their bodies sent home, but the sheer magnitude of such a task seemed insurmountable.
“A Union doctor named Thomas Holmes developed a form of chemical embalming using a hand pump and arsenic to preserve a body,” Dr. Berkson said. “If family members requested the body of their son, it would be embalmed and sent to them. The profession of freelance embalmer soon arose, and practitioners would set up tents near battlefields to ply their trade.”
Widespread embalming began to shape what we know of today as the funeral industry. Embalming required special equipment and facilities, leading to modern funeral homes. Over the years, embalmers began to take on more and more of the needs of the bereaved and undertakers became funeral directors, walking families through the logistical challenges of the funerary process.
Death, Dying, and the Afterlife: Lessons from World Cultures is now available to stream on Wondrium.