During the Victorian era, when funerals were an extravagant business, the family of the deceased would often hire a mute for the occasion. A mute was basically a paid mourner, whose job was to keep vigil outside the house then lead the funeral procession.
A mute dressed in sombre clothes with a black top hat. If it was an adult’s funeral he’d wear a black sash and carry a black crepe-covered staff. For a child’s funeral, the sash and staff would be white.
Most commonly, men took on the role of mutes but there were some child mutes, including Charles Dickens’ famous character, Oliver Twist, who was taken on by the undertaker Mr Sowerberry for children’s funerals. Sowerberry told his wife: ‘There’s an expression of melancholy in his face, my dear, which is very interesting. He would make a delightful mute, my love… I don’t mean a regular mute to attend grown-up people, my dear, but only for children’s practice. It would be very new to have a mute in proportion, my dear.’
Dickens liked to mock the Victorian’s obsession with mutes, believing them to be an unnecessary expense, particularly for the lower classes who could least afford them. In another of his books, Martin Chuzzlewit, he wrote: ‘Two mutes were at the house-door, looking as mournful as could reasonably be expected of men with such a thriving job in hand.’
Most mutes were day-labourers who took on funeral work as a bit of extra money. It was irregular work so they made the most of it – not least in the amount they drank! It was traditional to gives mutes gin to keep them warm while they stood outside, so drunkenness was prevalent. This is exemplified in a quote from the secretary of an English burial society, printed in the illustrated magazine, Leisure Hour, in 1862: ‘The men who stand as mutes at the door are supposed to require most drink. I have seen these men reel about the road, and after the burial, we have been obliged to put these mutes into the interior of the hearse and drive them home, as they were incapable of walking.’
Not surprisingly, the use of mutes began to decrease and by the turn of the 20th century these professional mourners had disappeared altogether.