Darrell and Kathy Wieas have had Percheron horses for as long as they can remember. For years they have shown them at various county fairs, given sleigh and wagon rides and just generally enjoy being around them. “They are a gentle, peaceful breed and we can’t imagine our life without them,” Darrell explains.
So, it was only fitting that their latest venture would involve their beloved Percherons. In 2010 they formed K & D Carriage, a service that offers horse-drawn hearse services for a loved one’s last ride. “Being involved with horses our whole lives,” Kathy notes, “we thought this would be a very quiet and peaceful way to go. It gives people an option over the traditional hearse.”
The brainstorm came to them after they were involved in a funeral for a young girl who was killed in an auto accident. She was actively involved with horses and the family wanted them to be part of the service. After Darrell used his hitch wagon to transport the casket, he got to thinking that this may not be such a bad idea and that other people may be inclined to use this service too.
However, as is his nature, instead of shopping for a hearse to use, he decided to build one from scratch to meet his needs. He designed and built his version after the horse-drawn hearses of yesteryear, with the exception that his is built larger to accommodate modern-day caskets.
He bought the measurements off Beechie Buggy Company and took pictures as a starting point. Then, he and Kathy’s cousin Garry Chaney went to work building the frame and roofing it. The frame consists of seven layers of 3/4 inch plywood and the shell is a combination of hickory, cherry and oak. To make it even more special, all the wood was cut from the Wieas farm.
In Darrell’s words, “A funeral should always be about respect, about the person and how they lived their life. We feel like this is giving families a little something different, a little something extra.”
Kathy chimes in, “It slows the ride to the cemetery down, slows everything down the way it is supposed to be. We’ve had a number of funeral directors tell us that more cars actually slow down or pull off and there is just that air of respect that the horses bring.”
The pace of the ceremony may be slow, but the hours before can sometimes be hectic. They have two Percherons that they use to pull the hearse. Ace is a gray one and Cap is black. Each one has his own characteristics which dictate which one they use on a particular day. Ace is their “steady rock” who tolerates bands and noises well, not getting spooked easily. Cap, on the other hand, is more stylish being black and can tolerate pulling further distances.
Regardless of which one they use, before each service the horse is washed. If it is too cold to actually wash them, they vacuum them with a shop vac. “Don’t laugh,” Darrell smiles, “they are actually getting used to being vacuumed.”
This is only the first step. After they are trimmed and clipped, colored ribbons are woven into their tails and forelocks. Harnesses are cleaned and shined and the hearse is cleaned. Then they are transported, unloaded and hitched up. People only see them pulling a casket for a couple of miles. It is a lot more work than that.
As far as the services, no two are ever alike. “There are a lot of different beliefs and customs so every funeral is unique. We try to cater to each family’s wishes,” Darrell says.
One of the most memorable ones that they were involved in was at the Indian Reservation near Athens, Michigan. The deceased was not only a member of the tribe, but also a veteran. Thus, the ceremony was not only included military funeral traditions, but also incorporated tribal customs as well. As part of the military honors, they did the riderless horse where a saddled horse with no rider follows the casket followed by the 21-gun salute. The Indians followed with their ceremony, complete with tribal members in full Indian dress and carrying decorated spears.
“Some of these things give me the chills,” Kathy admits. “They had the casket and ceremony down the hill with everything else on top. They had Darrell, the horse and myself walk away between two pine trees like we were fading off. It was actually rather eerie.”
Another time they did an Amish funeral and had 40 buggies following the hearse that travelled four miles. Even with this long of procession, no one complained and all the cars followed with no one trying to cut in. Now that is respect.
A couple years ago some old human remains were found in an attic of a house in Union City. Hard as the police tried, they could not be identified. They were presumed to be the remains of people who were fleeing the south via the Underground Railroad from the 1800’s. When the community decided to give them a proper burial, Darrell and Kathy were honored to be asked to carry the bones to the cemetery.
Their clients vary, not all are involved with horses, like one may think. One guy owned a restaurant, one kid liked horses and one guy always wanted horses but never had any. One time they were hired to take a body back out to the farm so the family could ring the dinner bell, then they loaded the body back in the hearse and took it back for cremation. For the last few funerals they have done, the spouses wanted to ride too, sitting on the seat next to Darrell.
There are a few rules that they strictly adhere to. They never travel more than 100 miles because it is just too far for the horses. They set the rates based on the area and two people always go to the ceremony. “Once I unload the horses, I never leave them,” Darrell is adamant. “Someone else, usually Kathy, takes care of all the other things and I’m with the horses.”
It’s not always solemn either. Once they got a chuckle when a young girl came up to them and told them how much she liked this idea and wondered if the grandkids were going to take over the business. Darrell laughs, “I didn’t think I was that old yet! She called Kathy “Mrs. Carriage Lady!”
Yes, they do plan on providing this service for a long time to come. Also on a cheerful note, they would like to expand their services and include horse-drawn fall color tours, birthday and anniversary parties and weddings.
Whatever Darrell, Kathy, Ace and Cap are involved in, you can bet it will be slower paced and peaceful. Who couldn’t use a little bit of that in their lives.