The Regency Way of Death:   Funeral Mutes

During the Regency, as had been the case for over two centuries, most upscale funerals were comprised of a number of attendants, including "mutes." Like the majority of funeral attendants at this time, these mutes were provided by the undertaker as part of their services. Though most of these "mutes" were perfectly capable of speech, it was their responsibility, not only to remain silent throughout the duration of every funeral, but also to maintain an exaggeratedly mournful expression while they served in the capacity of mute. Macabre as it may seem, during the Regency, there were men and boys who regularly supplemented their income as professional mutes.

Funeral mutes during the Regency . . .

The earliest concept of the funeral mute can be dated back to Ancient Rome. It was the custom for a mime to walk in the funeral procession of a deceased member of an important family. The Roman mime dressed all in black and wore a mask made of wax which was fashioned to look like the departed. Each mime was chosen based on their physical resemblance to the person who had passed away. As he walked in the procession, the mime did his best to mimic the mannerisms of the deceased and his family. This masked mime was intended to represent the physical personification of the ancestors of the newly departed, come to earth in order to provide their relative with an escort into the underworld.

About 1600, the mute had become a required attendant at the funerals of the English upper classes. Like the Roman funeral mime, they dressed all in black and walked in the funeral procession. At about this same time, it became customary to have two mutes rather than just one. But unlike the Roman mime, mutes did not mimic the deceased person, but walked solemnly behind the feathermen, who typically led the procession. Nevertheless, by the turn of the eighteenth century, similar to the Roman funeral mime, the mute was considered to be the symbolic protector of the newly departed person. A pair of mutes would stand near the door of the home of the deceased while the body lay within. The mutes would then walk in the funeral procession when the body was taken to the church. Once the coffin was carried into the church, the mutes would take up their position at the door of the church during the funeral service. Though there are few records from this period, it appears that mutes were hired directly by the family of the departed, or might even have been servants of that family.

With the rise of the professional undertaker at the end of the eighteenth century, the undertaker took on the responsibility of hiring all of the attendants for a funeral, including the mutes. The undertaker also had the implied responsibility for safe-keeping of the body until the burial. Many mutes deputized for the undertaker, who was often managing more than one funeral at a time. As had mutes in previous decades, two mutes would take up their position on either side of the door of the departed’s home while the family kept vigil around the body. Mutes often helped to place the coffin in the hearse, then walked in the funeral procession when the deceased was taken to the church. There, they took up their places outside the doors of the church during the funeral service. Often mutes accompanied the coffin to the graveside, standing back during that final service. Once the mourners departed, the mutes often helped to fill in the grave as part of their duties.

In accordance with tradition, funeral mutes typically wore a white shirt, black suit, black shoes, black gloves, and a large black sash across their torso. They also wore a black beaver hat, swathed with crepe with a narrow length which trailed down their back. For most funerals, the mute’s hat was swathed with black crepe, unless the funeral was for a child or an unmarried person. In those cases, the mute’s hat was wrapped with white crepe and the mute wore a white sash and white gloves. Mutes also carried tall staffs which were believed to harken back to the staves of the castle porters who stood watch during ancient baronial funerals. These staffs had a cross-piece affixed near the top from which a length of crepe was hung. The crepe was secured with a large bow near the middle of the staff. The crepe which was draped over the mute’s staff was usually black, again, with the exception of funerals for children or unmarried people, when the staff was draped in white crepe.

There appear to have been two rather distinct classes of mutes. The more prominent undertakers who served the better classes hired professional mutes who also stood as their representatives to their clients for the duration of the preparation for the funeral, the funeral procession, service and burial. In quite a number of cases, these professional mutes came from a family whose male members spent their working lives as funeral mutes. Their wives, sisters and daughters may also have found work in the funeral industry preparing bodies for burial, a task usually assigned to women. However, there was another, less savory class of men who worked as mutes for less prominent and less affluent undertakers. These men often did not have steady jobs and took whatever work they could get. There were some advantages to working as a mute. In some cases, they would be provided with a full suit of clothes. At the very least, they would be given the hat, sash and gloves they were expected to wear. These garments might become part of their wardrobe, or, they could be sold for extra cash. Those who were required to provide their own garments were often seen to be wearing dingy shirts, thread-bare coats and time-worn hats. Men who picked up casual work as mutes might not be as diligent in their responsibilities, such as keeping silent and maintaining a mournful expression while they were on duty. These men also tended to have a fondness for liquor and it was quite common for them to go directly to the nearest tavern or public house after a funeral, which routinely caused comment about how by so doing they made a mockery of the solemnity of the funeral rites in which they had just participated.

A pair of mutes was considered de rigueur for any Regency funeral with any pretension to superior social standing. The mutes provided by an upscale undertaker for a prominent family would typically have been professional mutes who were dressed well and appropriately. They would have taken their work seriously, remaining silent, with a mournful expression whenever they were on duty. For less affluent families, the mutes provided by their undertaker might be any pair of men whom they could get to take the work. Their garments might be slightly shabby and they might not maintain silence or a mournful expression while they were on duty. And, they were quite likely to make for the nearest tavern or pub once the funeral was over, while still wearing the clothes they had worn at the funeral. Such behavior certainly caused comment.

Though perhaps a bit macabre, mutes might be employed to serve the purpose of a story set during the Regency. Dear Regency Authors, could it be that your hero needs to keep an eye on someone in a home where there has been a recent death? Will he arrange to have his men assigned as mutes to that house so they can monitor the comings and goings there? Or, perhaps the heroine is accosted by a drunken mute coming out of a pub, to be rescued by the hero just in the nick of time? Are there other ways in which a mute might make an appearance in a Regency story?

Advertisements

About Kathryn Kane

Historian with a particular interest the English Regency era.   An avid reader of novels set in that time, holding strong opinions on the historical accuracy to be found in said novels.
This entry was posted in Oddments and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to The Regency Way of Death:   Funeral Mutes

  1. I can most certainly see my Bow St Runner, Caleb, assigning men to act as mutes to keep an eye on the family where a suspicious death has occurred, thank you! I could also see a scenario where a mute is a member of a gang of thieves, watching and noting which of the family will bear robbing when the gang attack the cortege in the darkness.

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      Mutes assigned by a Bow Street Runner after a suspicious death in the house is a most excellent idea!

      It would be pretty hard for a thief to get a job as a mute at the home of a wealthy family. Only the wealthiest families would have been able to afford a night funeral. Therefore, they would have employed one of the more upscale undertakers, who would have provided professional mutes who served as their assistants. However, I can see a scenario where the thieves might take one or both of the mute’s families hostage in order to force them to do their bidding. That might make for an interesting sub-plot.

      Regards,

      Kat

  2. Perhaps even with both families hostage, a professional thief, who knows what he’s looking for, who has enough superficial resemblance to one of them, takes the place of one, and the other dares not say anything.
    Needs a title like Jane and the Dead Ringer

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      Ooh! I like the plot bunny and the title!!! It adds a lot more tension to the story to have one of the bad guys keeping an eye on the other mute.

      Something has occurred to me. Perhaps the good mute is able to signal a friend who passes by the house while he is on duty by forcing a smile which the other mute does not see. His friend catches the expression, which he knows is completely unacceptable in a mute, and knows his friend would never do such a thing while on duty. Therefore, something must be very wrong.

      Regards,

      Kat

      • Oh I do like that [writes it down in notebook of Jane and Caleb plots] that would mean that Jane and Caleb have to work out what is going on, not be told…. that makes it novel length not extended short story.
        Anna, I could see a child like Silvester’s nephew doing just that….

  3. A most fascinating post. Thank you very much for sharing, and thanks for the brilliant plot bunnies.
    Maybe one could have a scene with a funeral featuring two mutes, and the naughty kids of a (remote) family member do their best to make the poor men laugh…. Very indecent idea, but the heroine might step in and thus win the approval of the high-stickling hero.

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      Your plot bunny reminds me a bit of the people who try to make the royal guards laugh while they are on duty. Even though the idea of trying to make mutes laugh while they are on duty seems rather inappropriate, it is just the thing to appeal to some mischievous, and probably bored, young children of a family in mourning. I like the idea that the heroine stops them, hopefully with a more appropriate distraction, which the hero will appreciate and admire.

      Regards,

      Kat

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s