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An Old Funeral Custom

He’s a young orphan who has spent his short life being treated badly and fed even worse. So it’s not surprising that Oliver Twist has an “expression of melancholy” when he is apprenticed to the undertaker Mr Sowerberry. What may be surprising is that Mr Sowerberry sees a way to make money out of Oliver’s expression.

He decides that Oliver will work as a mute, or someone whose job is to attend a funeral looking sad and saying nothing. As a child himself, Oliver will be perfect for children’s funerals. Mr Sowerberry is right: when Oliver walks at the head of a child’s funeral procession, looking sad, dressed in black and wearing a hat with a long trailing band of cloth, he earns the admiration of “all the mothers in the town.”

Dickens’ Victorian readers would have been very familiar with mutes, because it was expected that every respectable funeral would have some. The first part of their job was to stand outside the house of the departed person on the day of the funeral, waiting for the coffin to be brought out and taken to its burial place. When this happened, the mutes would then lead the funeral procession, walking in a slow and dignified way. Like Oliver, they would be dressed in black and wear a hat with a trailing band. They would also carry a long stick covered in crêpe, which would be coloured black for an adult’s funeral and white for a child’s.

Mutes were a simple but effective way to increase the sense of ceremony and occasion at a funeral. At least, they would have been that if it hadn’t been for their occasional bad behaviour. Being a mute wasn’t a full-time job and mutes were usually labourers paid by the funeral. They were hard-drinking men and saw no reason to stop when they worked as mutes, particularly when they had to stand outside a house in cold weather. Indeed, employing mutes for a funeral often meant not just hiring their clothes, but also supplying them with gin. They might behave themselves as they waited and during the funeral, but they became notorious for their drunkenness afterwards.

People also began to question the idea of paying strangers to feign sadness at the funeral of someone they had never known and cared nothing about. Charles Dickens was one of many writers who criticized them. By making Oliver Twist into a “miniature mute” he was subtly but unmistakably satirizing the custom. Mutes were very common at funerals during the first half of Queen Victoria’s reign, then fashion began to turn against them. By the 1880s, they were a lot rarer and not long into the twentieth century they had gone for good. Only the middle-aged and elderly would have been able to remember them.

Dickens didn’t live to see their passing, but he would surely have been pleased if he’d known that his work had helped put them out of business. He thought that many Victorian funerals were not just expensive, but also insincere. In his view, mutes were an obvious sign of a concern for style over substance. He thought that people should pay less for a funeral and grieve more. Mutes were an interesting custom but today we can see that Dickens are surely right: when we organize a funeral, we should think most of the departed person, not of following fashion or keeping up our social position.