This article was published in the Lenoir News-Topic.
Somehow, Gary Shew’s horses know a funeral is a somber event.
When Shew’s three horses first hit gravel on a typical day, pulling a simple wooden carriage behind them, they bounce up and down a bit before they get into formation. The beginning of the ride is bumpy until the horses settle down.
Not so at a funeral. There, the horses sense the atmosphere and calm down almost immediately. They’re reverent, Shew said.
Shew has been around horses for as long as he can remember. For the last 25 years, he has been offering a horse-drawn hearse for hire at funerals, and a horse-drawn carriage for the bereaved family, when it’s requested.
Shew’s hearse is, in a word, grand. The exterior is glossy black with panels of glass allowing people to see where the coffin rides. Taupe curtains swoop in elegantly, framing the glass. As he drives, Shew and his horses alike are dressed in traditional 19th-century garb, matching the era that the hearse was designed to mimic.
He’ll bring a horse-drawn carriage out to Bible schools, church picnics, and weddings occasionally – but the funerals are where he spends most of his time.
It’s a way to send someone off in style, Shew said, no matter what someone had in life. It’s about dignity.
“They may not have a kingdom and they may not be the heir to some throne,” Shew said. “But everyone is someone’s hero.”
Over the years, Shew’s horse-drawn hearse has carried decorated veterans, prominent public servants, preachers and people who could barely afford a funeral.
“I feel this responsibility to make their last trip a great one,” he said.
But the horse-drawn hearse is not just for the people it carries. It’s for the bereaved family, too. This is not a business so much as it is a mission, Shew said. It’s a way to reach out to families and bear a little of their grief.
In his view, you need to help people, and you use what God gives you.
God gave him a hand with horses.
As the horses draw near to a funeral, the clip-clop of their hooves is rhythmic and aligned. The horses are calm. They know where they are.
“There’s a magic to it, that rhythm,” Shew said. “It’s beating out comfort. I can’t explain it.”