Ambulances did not always look like the ones we see today, large rectangular vehicles with flashing sirens. As with most things, the ambulance changed little by little over the course of many years. Perhaps one of the strangest facts about the history of emergency transportation services was that funeral homes use to be the primary first responders. At any given moment one was uncertain whether or not the body in the back of the hearse was dead or alive. Talk about a conflict of interest.

After the Civil War, ambulance services grew in popularity with the general public. Funeral homes became one of the standard institutions for picking patients up and transporting them to hospitals. By the 1960s, more than 50% of all ambulances were either hearses, vans, or trucks (Talmon). Although a hearse being used to save lives seems a bit contradictory, there were a few basic reasons why undertakers were a good fit. First of all, the hearse was big enough to fit a patient who was laying down. Also, funeral workers were available around the clock.

A 1965 Buick that could serve as a hearse or ambulance. Image credit: Barn Finds.

Offering lifts to the hospital had the potential to be an extremely profitable side gig. Typically, if a person died while on their way to the hospital their relatives would often use the funeral that already had the body in their possession (“Somebody”). I’m sure most funeral homes did their best to do right by the patients, but it makes you wonder if some of them took the scenic route on purpose. Although funeral professionals had some level of medical knowledge, they were not expected to treat the passenger, just transport them. Towards the end of the 1960s, heightened medical regulations made it difficult for funeral homes to keep up with growing standards. As a result, many stopped offering hospital rides. By the early 1970s, ambulances became tiny hospitals on wheels, enabling patients to receive emergency treatment while in transit.

Who would have guessed that the experts that deal with death on a daily basis were also the same people we once relied on to assist us in living.

If that doesn’t make you grateful for modern medicine then I don’t know what Will!

Until Next Time

N.F.

Sources:

  • Final Exits: The Illustrated Encyclopedia of How We Die. William Morrow Paperbacks: 2006, NY. Print.
  • “Somebody Call a Hearse!: The Evolution of Motorized Emergency Medical Vehicles in the Civilian U.C.” Lucky Sci. 7 December, 2012. Accessed 9 September, 2020. Luckysci.com/2012/12/saved-by-the-hearse-the-evolution-of-motorized-emergency-medical-service-vehicles/.
  • Talmon, Noelle. “Funeral Homes were First to Provide Ambulances.” Ripleys. 6 May, 2019. Accessed 9 September, 2020. Ripleys.com/weird-news/funeral-homes-ambulances/.

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