Sunday, July 20, 2014

The Black Mariah

Sometimes I lose sight of the fact that cemeteries are used to bury the dead. I get caught up in the beauty of the landscaping, the Victorian architecture and statuary, the finery of the flowers and trees, the animals, the serenity (not to mention the genealogy) – all those things the designers of nineteenth century garden cemeteries invented to distract us from the sorrow of death.

This past Saturday, I was on my way to meet some friends for some beers and BBQ. I passed West Laurel Hill Cemetery on Belmont Avenue near the Philadelphia Main Line. I had fifteen minutes to kill so I thought I’d drive around and maybe take some pictures. As I passed the funeral home/office building, I was a bit startled to see a pair of large white horses harnessed to the old funeral coach.

This is a nineteenth-century horse-drawn hearse in perfect condition, a glossy black mariah. The cemetery, or rather the cemetery owners, Bringhurst Funeral Home (owners of West Laurel Hill Cemetery, Bala Cynwyd, PA), keep this lovely museum piece parked outside under a portico year-round. I’d heard that you can rent it for your funeral procession, but I never saw it in action. Back around 2005, the director of Philadelphia's historic Laurel Hill Cemetery (on Ridge Avenue) found this amazing piece of history at a buggy auction in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. He bought it for just one thousand dollars!

Awaiting the funeral procession
The hearse is magnificent, with perfect wood and red velvet interior, bowed glass side windows, and bowed rear doors. The white horses hitched to it today wore white feathery plumes on their heads and black leather harnesses. There was a man in full livery preparing them for a funeral procession. I stopped my car, got out, and asked if I could take some pictures. He said sure. I was really taken by the grandeur of the equestrian trappings, and the light was falling on the carriage in a very flattering manner. I even shot some sepia-toned monochrome images for that antique look.

The horses were not spooked at all as I walked around them, getting a bit close to the action. The casket was not in the hearse. Though I knew that an actual funeral for a deceased person was about to occur, the scene had not yet taken on any seriously grave aspect for me. I asked the attendant a few questions while I took photos, like “How often does the cemetery do this?” He said about six times a year. Since there were a few cars pulling up, I asked when the funeral was to occur. At that point it was 1:15 p.m. He said, “The parents are due to arrive at 1:30.” Gulp.

“The parents?” My heart sank. Possibly this was a funeral for a small child. I did not want a grieving family to see me mooning over the horse-drawn funeral carriage in my shorts and t-shirt, so I didn’t bother getting a video. I thanked the man and went to my car. As I drove away I saw him don his black coat and top hat, then climb up onto the driver’s seat behind the horses. I tried not to think any more about this for the rest of the day.

Further information:
For a video of a British funeral coach in action, click here.