Going Out In Style

Horse drawn hearse at Nunhead Cemetery Open Day (Photo by © Peter Trimming and licenced for reuse under cc-by-sa/2.0)

Dear Readers, as I sat on the 263 bus crawling back up towards East Finchley earlier today, I noticed that the reason for our slow process was an absolutely magnificent horse-drawn hearse, heading up towards St Pancras and Islington Cemetery. There were four black horses with plumes and a hearse not dissimilar to the one above – glass sided, and festooned with Arsenal Football Club memorabilia.  I would say that I see one of these hearses on average about once a month heading up towards one of the cemeteries, and I’m always intrigued. There is a certain irony about the fact that the horses and the hearse actually have to be brought close to the site of the funeral by motor vehicle – those horses have a hard enough job getting the heavy hearse from the top of Highgate Hill, and I think this particular funeral actually started from the Church of St Josephs which is just before Waterlow Park.

I am slightly amused by some of the funeral companies advertising their horse-drawn hearses as being more environmentally friendly. Mate, I just saw two enormous vehicles with ‘carriage horses’ and ‘hearse’ on the side speeding up the Great North Road.

Horse drawn hearse from just outside Cambridge © enchantingmiaow and licenced for reuse under cc-by-sa/2.0

Once upon a time, nobody needed to travel to be buried, because the coffin could easily be carried from the church to the graveyard by some strong chaps. However, gradually there was the separation between church and burial site, and so horses were often needed – historically the coffin was carried on a bier, which was basically an open cart. However, horses fell out of favour after the First World War – so many horses had gone to the killing fields of France and Belgium, along with the men who looked after them, and so there was a shift towards motorised transport.

However, people who could afford the expense of a horse-drawn hearse, and a ‘carriage master’ continued to see it as a way of giving someone a stylish send-off (our local funeral directors, Levertons, will do you a hearse and four horses for a mere £1900). (Which is actually a bit less than I imagined).  Four black horses became something of a tradition amongst the East End criminal fraternity, for one thing. And there is something about the clopping of hooves and the black plumes that makes passersby stop and stare. Nobody falls silent, or takes their hat off these days, though – I remember my parents and my grandmother, East Enders all, doing this when a funeral passed as late as the early 1970s. I must admit that I often just stand quietly when I see a cortege.

Very occasionally I see a white hearse drawn by white horses, often with pink plumes. This is nearly always because the deceased is a little girl. I find these occasions particularly poignant.

I cannot leave this subject without a few words on the Victorian tradition of the mute. A mute was a paid mourner, often a day-labourer, whose job was to stand outside the house of the deceased and then lead the funeral procession. As this could be a cold, lonely vigil, it was traditional to provide the mute with gin, with the predictable results.

This is exemplified in a quote from the secretary of an English burial society, printed in the illustrated magazine, Leisure Hour, in 1862:

‘The men who stand as mutes at the door are supposed to require most drink. I have seen these men reel about the road, and after the burial, we have been obliged to put these mutes into the interior of the hearse and drive them home, as they were incapable of walking.’ From the website of Austins Funeral Directors here.

Even more in demand was the child mute: you might remember this, from Oliver Twist, when the funeral director Mr Sowerberry considers taking Oliver on as a mute at children’s funerals.

There’s an expression of melancholy in his face, my dear, 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.’

In fact, many young ‘mutes’ did their best not to ‘age out’ of their lucrative professions, dressing in children’s clothes and trying to look as juvenile as possible, and who could blame them? Victorian England was a terrible place to be young and poor (or indeed poor at any age), and who could begrudge an adult ‘mute mourner’ his gin? Not me, for sure.

4 thoughts on “Going Out In Style

  1. Rosalind Atkins

    My younger sister arranged my mother’s funeral. They had a very close relationship & she was determined to do things in grand style. I only remember two horses, but they were very big, jet black & with tall black plumes. They were also very stately & as we proceeded along the dual carriageway to Worthing Crematorium a motorcyclist realised at the last moment what he was about the overtake, made the sign of the cross and held station for a very long time until our ways parted. I was mortified (the drivers behind no doubt experiencing other emotions) but I know that my mother, who I found a very difficult woman, would have absolutely loved it 🤣


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