Tuesday, February 19, 2013

The Undertaker's Mute

A reader recently asked me what a character means in my first regency, Ruined by Rumor, when he accuses the heroine's new husband of having "all the address of an undertaker's mute."

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.)
He bore a staff covered in crepe--white for the death of a child, black for an adult--and was himself similarly draped, wearing a sash and a top hat with a trailing silk hat band. I looked long and hard to find an historical image, but unfortunately the best period illustration I could find, here, is under copyright. Still, I hope you'll click on the link, since the painting you'll find is a wonderfully evocative example of a pale and woeful mute.

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.

Alyssa EverettAlyssa Everett's debut regency romance, Ruined by Rumor, is currently available from Carina Press.  Her second regency, Lord of Secrets, will be out March 25 and is available now for pre-order, while her third, A Tryst With Trouble, will be released in September. She hopes you'll visit her website and follow her on Twitter and Facebook, where she promises not to spam you relentlessly.


Charlotte Russell said...

Thanks for this fascinating article, Alyssa. 19th century funeral customs are so interesting because, to me, they stand out in contrast to our much more "personalized" mourning of the 21st century.

I love the drawing you've included!

Mindy said...

The silent version of Oliver Twist shows Jackie Coogan in the costume of the undertaker's mute. It's especially shocking to see a child in that role.

Justin said...

A reference to an undertaker's mute in the Sherlock Holmes story "The Adventure of the Missing Three-Quarter" is what brought me here.
What a lovely and helpful article, thank you.

Anonymous said...

Thank you! That very passage in Oliver Twist piqued my curiosity just now and this was an excellent explanation! Please know your blogs are still being read 11 years after they’re written. Thanks!