By Margie Wuebker
ST. MARYS -- Kent and Brent Miller admire the shiny black hearse dating back to the late 1800s and wonder aloud what stories they would hear if only this thing could talk.
The Millers, part of a family corporation that owns Miller Funeral Home and Miller-Long & Folk Funeral Home in St. Marys and Vornholt-Miller Funeral Home in New Knoxville, purchased the historical vehicle from Brent Miller's college roommate and friend, Greg Busch, nearly a year ago.
Busch owned and operated a funeral home in Elizabeth, W.Va., and the hearse was part of the inventory. He called the brothers after deciding to sell the business to become a college professor.
"I had been looking for an old hearse because I'm something of a history buff," Brent Miller says. "You can find them in trade publications, but everything is too expensive, in really bad condition or a mere reproduction. The reproductions are nice but they are too perfect. I wanted history and the kind of imperfections that naturally show up in things not mass produced by machinery."
The wheels with wood spokes and metal jackets are authentic. So are the distinctive lanterns, brass hinges, beveled glass windows, silver candelabra-like decorations and the gold fringe trimming a carved wood insert in the ceiling. Silver guides still mark the casket area, which can accommodate a full-size model topped with a large floral spray. The hearse, manufactured in 1870 by the Crane & Breed Co. of Cincinnati, has undergone extensive restoration during the ensuing months. It now sports a new black finish, a fringed seat for the driver and a canvas top that conveniently snaps into place. Distinctive gold lettering applied to the windows spells out the words "Miller Brothers Undertakers." The original drapery, remained but dry rot caused irreparable damage over the years. A local seamstress fashioned new ones of rich black velvet backed with matching canvas-type fabric. Fringe and tassels add the finishing touch.
"The original owners spared no expense when it came to building the thing," Brent Miller says. "It also received good care over the years. A vehicle like this got called out in all kinds of weather -- sun, rain, snow and sleet. Someone probably wiped it down after every outing."
Kent Miller explains the curtains were lowered when the hearse went to pick up a body and bring it to the funeral home for embalming. There was no padded gurney; merely a long woven basket. He surmises the trap doors in the sturdy wood floor aided employees during cleanup details.
Funeral home employee Ed Voisard pointed out something was definitely missing from the completed project -- old-fashioned horsepower to pull the restored hearse in parades and funeral processions. His frequent reminders eventually led to the purchase of black Percherons and a sturdy harness from John and Carol Miller of Covington. The docile animals, each weighing 1,850 pounds, now reside at the Dave and Nancy Liette farm just west of St. Marys.
Voisard has another suggestion for the brothers -- top hats and tailed coats like the period attire undertakers donned for somber funerals. Both smile, adding formal attire may be a possibility in the coming months.
"My interest in history certainly played a part in the acquisition of something now considered a luxury in the business," Brent Miller says. "This was standard fare back in the 1800s before the advent of cars. Interestingly, Crane & Breed changed horses after the turn of the century and began producing motorized vehicles to keep pace with changing times."
Mourners in bygone days followed the hearse on foot or in horse-drawn conveyances like buggies and buckboards. The slow procession often led from the home of the deceased to the final resting place at a church or family cemetery.
"Methods change but the basics remain the same," Brent Miller says. " So does the fascination with ceremony and the coming together in order to bid farewell to loved ones. A properly orchestrated funeral helps restore order to a sometimes chaotic situation."
The hearse, which will be featured today in the 4:30 p.m. Summerfest parade, has generated considerable attention since its initial public appearance at local Memorial Day ceremonies. Several people have requested a final ride to the cemetery in back of the horse-drawn vehicle while making prearrangements. The Millers quickly point there is nothing more fitting than fulfilling the purpose for which the vehicle was created nearly 125 years ago.