In the Victorian Age it was a tradition that funeral mutes, as they were called, were used to stand in black and look mournful. These mourners were often used for funerals of people who had only a few people to truly mourn them; so, by using the mourners, the family could feel that the deceased was given the respect due the dead.
In Chapter V of Oliver Twist, little Oliver has been taken from the workhouse to be in the employment of Mr. Sowerberry, who remarks to his wife that little Oliver has
"an expression of melancholy...which is very interesting. He would make a delightful mute, my love."
And, so, in Chapter VI
many were the mournful processions which little Oliver headed, in a hat-band reaching down to his knees, to the indescribable admiration and emotion of all the mothers in the town.
Oliver is made to follow the coffins of the poor children who died in a measles epidemic because he always looks so sad himself. He also accompanies Mr. Sowerberry on the adult funerals, as well, and observes the resignation and strength with which the family bears their misfortune. Significantly, then, Dickens points to the meaninglessness of the death of the poor that is reduced to a pathetic pageant of falsity.