The Green Hearse: Novel Idea or More Greenwashing?

Green hearses have been around long before the "Green" movement.

Green hearses have been around long before the "Green" movement.

In this column we've discussed almost every aspect of greening the funeral service including the casket, burial shroud, burial vault, cemetery, and the funeral home itself, but the green hearse is a new topic.  What effect might a hybrid, all-electric, or even human-powered bicycle have in making our way of death safer and healthier for all living things that remain?  Let us again keep in mind our five talking points on greening funeral service including biodegradability, sustainability, local-sourcing, toxicity, and carbon lifecycle assessment as we think about the eco-friendly funeral coach.

Last September, Golders Green-based (England) Leverton and Sons funeral home basked in world-wide news coverage for their eco-friendly hearse.  The all-electric Nissan Leaf converted to a funeral car earned the Green Funeral Director of the Year award for the family-owned funeral home.  The coach, which can drive 120 miles on a single electrical charge at a cost of about $5, was declared "star of the show" at the Good Funeral Awards in Bournemouth, England.

Japanese manufacturer, Lequios, first announced plans to build a Prius Hearse early in 2009.  In November of 2012, Lequios made the news again with their Prius Hearse and concept pictures, but the product was still in development.  Connecting Directors blogged the story and it went viral, but as of January, 2014, there's still no sign of the Prius Hearse leading funeral processions on our roadways.

In September of 2011 the U.K. based firm, Brahms Electric Vehicles, announced plans to build a hybrid electric funeral coach.  The prototype hearse, built from a Mercedes-Benz station wagon, adorned none of the typical paneling and hardware features of a hearse.  The company was searching for a partner to aid in outfitting the wagon with features of a hearse.  Opinion pieces on the prototype were less than enthusiastic.  Today, the web site appears defunct with broken links and no images. [3-July-2014 Update: Brahms continues in their mission with a Nissan Leaf platform and offers an electric hearse.]

In Reno, Nevada there's an entirely different approach to the electric hearse taking shape.  A 1973 Cadillac Hearse has been converted by EV enthusiast, William Brinsmead.  After four years and $22,000, the completely rebuilt funeral coach has driven more than 2000 miles.  Top speed is 60mph and the charging range is 60 miles.

The bicycle hearse is another approach to eco-friendly transport of human remains.  Sunset Hills Cemetery and Funeral Home made the news last May with their custom built bicycle hearse.  The sidecar cargo transport has electric assist for the pair of pedaling pallbearers. The whole package including a wicker casket costs $3500.  Director, Wade Lind, shares that five families have opted for the pedal power and there is a waiting list for the service.  There are a few other examples of custom-built bicycle hearses in both the US and the UK that have made the news in the last few years.

The few examples of electric and hybrid electric funeral coaches in the news in the last five years appear to be more media hype than rubber-meets-the-road change in funeral service.  The few proprietors enjoying media coverage appear to have reaped more reward from the media coverage than from the benefits of green funeral coaches.  Human-powered hearses make for a great story, but any funeral service requiring more than a few miles of service would be impractical.  That is, unless the family lined up to take turns pedaling.

What about our talking points?  Biodegradability is not relevant for a re-usable good like a funeral coach.  Electric and hybrid vehicles fall prey to scrutiny in sustainability, toxicity, and carbon life cycle assessment when considering the cradle-to-grave impact of building, using, and disposing a hybrid electric automobile.  Compare a Cadillac Hearse with a Toyota Prius assuming 10,000 miles annually.  The carbon footprint of the Prius would be 10,000 lbs. less than the Cadillac.  That's the same carbon impact as 5 steel caskets or 20 cremations.  This assumes the Prius hearse would get the same mileage as the standard model (which would not be the case), so the carbon savings might be only half our estimate.

Were it practical for wider adoption, the bicycle hearse would take the prize for eco-smart funeral transportation.  It appears the green funeral coach is more greenwashing than real impact.  It would be far better in all of our five talking points on greening the funeral service to move more families to locally-made natural burial caskets in lieu of steel.   We could also have a far greater impact by talking to families about the carbon impact and toxicity of cremation so those who value the environment might opt for a green[er] burial instead.