The Real Reason Hearses Have This Decoration Instead Of Windows On The Back

Many people would likely think of hearses as just another fact of life, similar to death itself. They carry bodies in caskets in processions down the street on the way to funerals at cemeteries, and that's that. Plus, they're shaped like what we used to call "station wagons" because they need enough room for this big box inside, and they have tinted windows out of respect for the deceased. Also, if you've noticed, there might be this strange, elongated "s" curlicue thing on the back windows — at least in certain countries. After all, funerary rights vary wildly around the world. If, for instance, there's a stripper doing her thing on top of a coffin at a funeral, you might be in Taiwan. But alas, those elsewhere have to make do with mere window decorations.

The curious may wonder, however: What's up with the weird "s" thing on the back windows of hearses? It looks a bit like a fancy handle on an antique cabinet or something. Well, that fancy handle — called a "landau," or "landau bar" — is a holdover from an earlier, classier, more genteel era of vintage hearses. Rather than drab station wagons, hearses (especially pre-motorized hearses) used to be much more elaborate and beautiful than today, often looking like pieces of art. CARE Funeral Services says that landau bars were once part of a hinge mechanism for hearses with a foldable, fabric-type roof. But rather than have the hinge exposed, folks decided to make things pretty.

Old-World class on a New-World automobile

Just to get one gag out of the way first: No, landaus have nothing to do with Los Angeles-born guitarist Michael Landau — if you've heard of him. But Landau's last name does reveal the country of origin for landaus: Germany. In fact, Merriam-Webster tells us that a landau was a type of carriage developed in the region of Bavaria, Germany, and first showed up in 1743. Specifically, a landau was a horse-drawn vehicle where the driver sat outside in the front, passengers inside, and which had two opposing halves of a roof that folded individually and separately toward the front or back. Basically, we're saying it's a split-roofed convertible. But because those inside could sit on one of two rows of benches — one facing backward and one facing forward — there were two collapsible roof bits that tilted toward either seating area.

These carriages were used for quite some time. CARE Funeral says that such carriages necessitated a hinge mechanism attached to the outside of the carriage. Some wealthy folks didn't like the unattractive appearance of these mechanisms, and voila: The functional hinge became a functional-and-elegant landau bar, i.e., a bar on a landau. Sometime before World War II, the United States — late to the landau party — wanted to class up its hearses. Someone stuck a landau on a motorized hearse, and the traditional stands to this day. 

An entire landau bar industry

At present, landau bars can be found on modern Old- and New-World hearses alike. They're not mandatory or anything, but a hearse might look out of place without them. On that note, we direct aspiring hearse owners to a host of landau bar part-selling websites, down to the little circular, metallic buttons that attach to either end of the bar. The hearse masters at G. Burns LLC even have how-to videos about assessing, selecting, measuring, and applying landau bars to windows. They also have a spreadsheet of vehicle makes, models, and years as they intersect with different landau bar lengths. It might seem odd to think people sit and consider such things, but that's also what helps make it meaningful — being mindful of details that others might not even notice or care about. This is especially true because the topic at hand is death, funereal rituals, and grieving.

And because landau bars are essentially a part of a car, they require maintenance and cleaning, for which G. Burns LLC points us to various waxing, polishing, and microfiber towel products. Just remember that at this point some landau bars are closer to thin metal stickers than anything else — you can even take them off when going through a car wash. And yes, you can also just buy actual, flat landau bar stickers instead, but maybe just for Halloween. Think Addams Family fun time and you'll be in the right ballpark — or rather, cemetery.