A Funeral Car Named 'Descanso,' or, When Death Rode the Rails in America

In the first decades of the 20th century, if you died in a city, you may have traveled toward your final resting place via public transit.

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Orange Empire Railway Museum

In the first decades of the 20th century, if you died in a city, one of the ways you might travel toward your final resting place was by public transit.

“In L.A. in the early years, the cemeteries were right next to the churches,” says David Housh, curator of the Pacific Railroad Society. “Then those got too crowded, and they had to move them out to the countryside. And not too many people had cars.”

The result? In certain parts of the country, including the Los Angeles area, dedicated funeral cars were added to the streetcar systems. The only one that survives relatively intact is the Descanso (Spanish for “rest”), currently on display at the Orange Empire Railway Museum in Perris, California.

The Descanso (originally known as the Paraiso) was part of the Los Angeles Railway, or Yellow Line, which at its peak comprised 20 streetcar lines with 1,250 trolleys. Built in 1909 and available for chartered use by funeral parties at a cost of about $25, the Descanso was one of two funeral cars, designed with a compartment that opened to reveal a special folding casket carrier. The family sat with the coffin in an interior with touches including stained-glass windows. It was all very dignified, designed to accommodate people who wanted to avoid a bumpy ride over unpaved roads in a horse-drawn cart on their way to the lay a loved one to rest.

The Delores of Lorain, Ohio. Image courtesy of the Black River Historic Society

Another city that did a brisk business in funeral trains was Chicago, where the ‘L’ took mourners accompanying caskets to cemetery station stops in specially designed funeral cars at a rate that reached 22 trips per week in 1907, according to a fascinating investigation by WBEZ. Even a smaller city such as Lorain, Ohio, got into the funeral business, as a photo of a streetcar named Delores from the Black River Historical Society documents.

The Descanso was retired from duty in 1924 as private automobiles took over the funeral trade, on their way to dominating virtually all transportation in Southern California. By 1963, the Yellow Line itself was completely dismantled.

The Descanso on the Cajon Pass. Image courtesy of the Pacific Railroad Society

But the Descanso had an interesting second act, serving as a different kind of resting place. In 1940, it was installed at Summit in the Cajon Pass between the San Bernardino and San Gabriel mountains, providing a place for railfans to hang out as they waited for trains to pass along the mountain tracks. The car was outfitted with bunks and cooking facilities.

That era, too, came to an end, when in 1967 the Santa Fe Railroad closed the station at Summit. But the car was preserved by rail enthusiasts who saw it as a vital piece of the area’s history. Today it is on display at the Orange Empire Railway Museum in Perris, California, a reminder of a time when every aspect of life — and death — rode the rails in America.

About the Author

  • Sarah Goodyear has written about cities for a variety of publications, including Grist and Streetsblog. She lives in Brooklyn.