Objects of Intrigue: All Aboard the Funeral Trains! - Atlas Obscura
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Objects of Intrigue: All Aboard the Funeral Trains!

Winston Churchill’s funeral train on January 30, 1965 (via Ben Brooksbank/geograph.org.uk)

The great statesman Winston Churchill’s last ride was on board a steam locomotive. January 30, 2015 will mark the 50th anniversary of his funeral in St. Paul’s Cathedral, and in honor of the solemn commemoration, the National Railway Museum in England is resurrecting his funeral train. 

As Culture24 reported this week, the train is on track for a completed restoration, having finished the major structural repairs to the baggage van where Churchill’s coffin was carried. Richard Pearson, workshop and rail operations manager at Locomotion: the National Railway Museum at Shildon where the van’s being restored, stated: ”All that remains is the painting back to its original shade of umber and cream by our dedicated team of staff, volunteers and trainees. We anticipate it will be back to its former glory by mid-January.”

The South Railway parcel van S2464S had lugged vegetables and mail before the illustrious body of the Prime Minister, but that one day’s employment would make it part of British history, as well as the legacy of funeral trains. Alongside the restored van in an exhibition opening on January 30 called Churchill’s Final Journey, the Railway Museum will display the No 34501 Winston Churchill engine, the locomotive that pulled the train. They’re also crowdsourcing memories from anyone who witnessed the train as it chugged from Waterloo to Hanborough, where Churchill was buried beside his parents. 

The restored coffin van (via National Railway Museum)

When funeral trains debuted, some people thought they were a bit rowdy compared to the horse-drawn hearses. One of the first train services to be exclusively for the dead and their mourners was the London Necropolis Company  — with one of the best logos of all time — which started in 1854 to connect London to Brookwood Cemetery. In the United States, the funeral train got a major boost with the grand spectacle of Abraham Lincoln’s railway funeral in 1865. Next year, that funeral train will hit its 150th anniversary, and to commemorate a recreation is planned to ride from Washington, DC to Springfield, Illinois. 

Whether Lenin or FDR, the 20th century saw many of its leaders taking the train to the end of their line, giving a stretch of their countries a final chance to pay their respects with a wave of the hand or doffing of the hat. The practice has mostly gone out of fashion, but just last year the funeral of Senator Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey, a big train supporter, enlisted a private Amtrak train to transport his mortal remains. 

Below is some footage from Churchill’s funeral train, as well as photographs of the restored coffin van and images of other funeral trains from history.


The coffin van in April of 2014 (photograph by Hec Tate/Flickr)


The Winston Churchill engine in 2013 (photograph by Nigel Gibson/Flickr)


The Winston Churchill engine in an archive photograph (via Hugh Llewelyn/Flickr)


Abraham Lincoln’s funeral train illustrated in the 1860s (via Internet Archive Book Images)


Diagram of Lincoln’s funeral train (via Internet Archive Book Images)


Funeral train for Ulysses S. Grant in 1886 (via SMU Central University Library)


The funeral train for Herbert Hoover in 1964 (via Old Guard Museum)


Mortuary Railway Station in Rookwood Cemetery, Australia in 1865 (via NSW Photographic Collection)


Franklin D. Roosevelt funeral train (via National Archives & Records Administration)

The Amtrak funeral train for Senator Lautenberg in 2013 (photograph by Ryan Stavely/Flickr)

Churchill’s Final Journey is on view from January 30 to May 3 at the National Railway Museum in York, England.


Objects of Intrigue is a feature highlighting extraordinary objects from the world’s great museums, private collections, historic libraries, and overlooked archives. See more incredible objects here >