As the name suggests, an undertaker's mute worked for an undertaker, though few if any were actually unable to speak. Prior to World War I, and especially during Victorian times, mourning was big business, with the bereaved generally vying with one another to demonstrate the depth of their grief (and the loftiness of their social position) through lavish funeral arrangements. The mute was an expected part of this memorial pomp.
The role of the undertaker's mute began practically enough, as described by Bertram Puckle in his 1926 Funeral Customs: Their Origin and Development:
From the moment that the undertaker "undertakes" the funeral arrangements, he assumes an implied professional responsibility for the safe keeping of the body. This is the origin of the now obsolete practice of posting one or more of his miserable minions on the front doorstep of the house of mourning.As time went on, the mute's position became less practical and more ceremonial. With his doleful demeanor and somber costume, he was expected to set the proper tone of funerary gloom.
This undertaker's mute is swathed in white, appropriate for a child's funeral. (Image courtesy of artist Roxana Fernandez.)
In reality, however, mutes weren't always appropriately sober. One of the mute's principal responsibilities was to walk in the funeral procession, and it was traditional to supply him with gin in order to fortify him against the outdoor cold. Working as a mute was occasional rather than regular work, and many mutes made the most of the occasion, resulting in drunkenness. A writer to the London Quarterly Review complained of the expense of having to supply "kid gloves and gin for the mutes" and expressed a growing anti-mute sentiment when he decried "the lowest of all hypocrites, the hired mourner."
Charles Dickens was always alert to social hypocrisy, the more ridiculous the better, and in Oliver Twist he highlighted such absurdities of the funeral industry. The hen-pecked undertaker Mr. Sowerberry calls Oliver to his wife's attention:
'There's an expression of melancholy in his face, my dear,' resumed Mr. Sowerberry, '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. You may depend upon it, it would have a superb effect.'
Mrs. Sowerberry, who had a good deal of taste in the undertaking way, was much struck by the novelty of this idea; but, as it would have been compromising her dignity to have said so, under existing circumstances, she merely inquired, with much sharpness, why such an obvious suggestion had not presented itself to her husband's mind before?Thanks both to the gin-drinking and to ribbing from critics like Dickens, the mute gradually fell into disfavor, ultimately becoming a figure of ridicule. By the turn of the twentieth century, such professional mourners had disappeared from the English funeral scene altogether, with only the faintest echo of his demeanor discernible in today's pallbearers.
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