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The mute’s job was to stand vigil outside the door of the deceased, then accompany the coffin, wearing dark clothes, looking solemn and usually carrying a long stick (called a wand) covered in black crape.
Charles Dickens’s best-known mute is Oliver Twist, employed by the undertaker Sowerberry for children’s funerals. Most, though, were adult males, and were common in several European countries from the 17th century onwards, as ceremonial ‘protectors’ of the deceased. The fashion was probably inspired by the ancient Roman practice of assigning lictors (bodyguards of civic officials) to escort the funerals of prominent citizens.
There are plenty of accounts of mutes in Britain by the 1700s, and by Dickens’s time their attendance at even relatively modest funerals was almost mandatory. They were a key part of the Victorians’ extravagant mourning rituals, which Dickens often savaged as pointlessly, and often ruinously, expensive. In Martin Chuzzlewit, for instance: “Two mutes were at the house-door, looking as mournful as could reasonably be expected of men with such a thriving job in hand.”
Mutes died out in the 1880s/90s and were a memory by 1914. Dickens played his part in their demise, as did fashion. Victorian funeral etiquette was complex and constantly changing, as befitted a huge industry, which partly depended on status anxiety for the huge profits Dickens criticised. What did for them most of all, though, was becoming figures of fun – mournful and sober at the funeral, but often drunk shortly afterwards.
In Britain, most mutes were day-labourers, paid for each individual job. In one of the many yarns told about them, a mute doubled up as a waiter at the meal after one funeral. The deceased’s brother asked him to approach a gentleman at the head of the table to say he wished to take a glass of wine with him. So he instantly changed his demeanour from friendly waiter to mournful mute, went up to the man and quietly said: “Please, sir, the corpse’s brother would like to take a glass o’wine wi’ ye.”