Sexism in the Funeral Industry: A case study of W.N.Bull

    The Other Side Of Funerals is about brining to light certain aspects of the funeral industry.  One of these is the issue of sexism within the industry.  To understand the issue better I thought of taking a close look at WNBull as this is a perfect example of discrimination and role assignment based on sex which is a deep and untended issue in the company.  I will also say that it is and issue in the industry as a whole and not just WNBull.

You can read my previous post on sexism in the industry by clicking here.

    It should be noted that these devisions and many of these policies are not official or written anywhere, and there have (apparently) been exceptions.  However they are strickt policies I personally saw actively put into practice regularly at WNBull.  So while not official they do exist and do influence the company heavily in many ways.

    The 'garage staff' go out on funerals, they do the transfers, prepare coffins, prepare bodies and do all the physical work or driving.  This is not sexist itself as it is the role of garage staff, they are the ones who do the physical work and the funeral labour.  However what makes it sexist is that garage staff are always male.  Women are not allowed to be, or assist, garage staff at WNBull. the garage staff also have a very informal uniform (while mostly optional) while not on a funeral or transfer.  The two groups are primarily defined and identified by sex such as "the boys in the garage".  And as such all physical labour, even office related, is done by the garage staff.  Even simple and easy tasks as taking the post up are almost always done by the garage staff.

    The 'office staff' never go out on funerals (except two who I will get to later).  They are the arrangers who go out to family homes and arrange the whole funeral with the family, then they are baned from attending the funeral itself.  This causes a tension amongst the staff who get to know a family and assist them in arranging their loved ones funeral and then do not get to see it in action.  They never see the fuit of their work.  It also means they have no experience of how WNBull operates as they have never seen a funeral by WNBull and do not know about certain procedures or places.  An example is a couple of times inappropriate chapels have been booked at crematoriums, either a chapel that is way too small or way too big, because the arranger simply does not know how big or even where that chapel is.  One must wonder why the office staff cannot, must not, go on funerals if it would help them with the job emotionally and professionally.  It is simply because they are women, all office staff are always women at WNBull and always older.  There is a strickt and almost official policy that the office must be staffed by women, except for the superior who is a guy that has been with the company for too many years to count.

    Garage and office staff do not mingle much, there is a physical separation between the two groups.  For example there are two lunch rooms, one for office staff and one for garage staff and despite being quite close to each other they are very separate and prevent interaction between the two groups.  When an office staff member did join the garage staff in their lunch room it made the boss obviously unhappy and uneasy.  The boss actually poked her head into the lunch room and made note of the mixing of the staff.  At WNBull one can go without seeing the other group of staff for a good week or more.  This in itself is not really sexist, but because of the division of gender between garage and office staff it becomes very sexist.

    Sexism is prevalent in many policies that are not in themselves sexist.  These policies become sexist because of how they are excited and their very reason for existence.  A great example of this is the policy expressly banning women from wearing pants.  The women at WNBull must always wear a long skirt of dress and are not allowed to go out on funerals, which is also related to being office staff.  These policies do not apply to the boss who is female, she is usually seen wearing pants and not just going out on funerals but also conducting them.  It is obvious that the boss does this to deliberately appear separate, more important, than the other staff.  The rules do not apply to her as she makes them and is above them.  She literally wears the pants among the women.  There is a lot of evidence to support this from her need to control everything and inability to delegate to her constant desire for power shown through changing things for the sake of it and stating her beliefe in "the power of the pencil" when referring to her her ability to make decisions about WNBull and the staff.

    This only serves to highlight the divide between staff and create a negative rift.  The women see how it is quite possible for a woman to go on (and conduct) funerals and how wearing pants can be acceptable.  Yet they are not allowed to do either and actively punished if they even discuss doing so.  Here a 'power display' policy becomes sexist in how it forces women to do something unnecessary because they are women.

    Naturally there are staff who do have a foot in both the garage and office.  To be a conductor at WNBull you must also be an arranger (but not necessarily the other way around).  And the arrangers are office staff, thus all the conductors in the garage are also office staff.  However they are not seen as proper office staff or even 'real office staff' or real arrangers.  As such I came to divide the conductors into 'garage conductors' and 'office conductors' which, was based primarily on sex.  I witnessed several important arranger meetings that the conductors were not able to attend and as such they missed key information.  The office has a 'round up' meeting every morning for its arrangers, which the conductors are extremely rarely part of.  Only once did I see a garage conductor attend a round up meeting in the whole year I was there.  Instead it was only the 'office conductors' who attended regularly out of all the conductors.  These office conductors are the office superiors (who as I discussed earlier he is the only male who works primarily in the office) and the boss (who as I discussed before is the only female allowed on funerals or to wear pants).

    There are also certain preferences and special treatments towards staff based on their placement as 'garage' (or male) and 'office' (or female).  Not only are the office staff freed from physical work, due to being both women and office staff, but they are also given things first.  A few times baskets were sent by pleased mourners, company contacts or others and always they were opened in the office and very rarely shared with the garage staff.  One particular example is of when a mourner sent a fruit basket to thank the funeral staff (who are the garage staff) for what a great job they did on the funeral.  This basket was opened and distributed in the office to those who had no part in the funeral.  The garage staff only found out because someone found the card.  Yet the office staff do not get all the perks, the garage staff get to go out, get to have free food on funerals and get to see a funeral from start to finish.  The office staff who often work on the funeral never see it pan out, never see the result of their work and as such have surprisingly low satisfaction for their work at WNBull.

    The physical separation of the two groups of staff and the different ways the groups are treated creates a rift between staff.  People who would quite like each other do not know one-another.  All they see is two groups based primarily on sex and how the other group is treated better because of it.  The women do not have to do anything physical and the men get to go on funerals.

    As a result the staff themselves become sexist even though they are not actually sexist.  It was interesting, and worrying, how people became part of such a sexist and prejudice system.  The women in the office start assigning all physical tasks and roles to the men without realising, such as physical ones.  The men started to foster attitudes of women, such as that women were not as good at driving as men or that the women were more likely to fight amongst themselves.  What should be noted is that the staff were actually not sexist (at least for the most part).  The garage staff believed the women to be capable to go funerals and the office staff believed the men to be capable of working in the office.  Yet they all fell into sex rolls and assigned sex rolls without realisation or hesitation.  The staff at WNBull became part of the sexist machine.



  1. Anonymous10/4/13 00:28

    I'd have to say that I would disagree with your comments regarding the boss of WNB. I have found her an amazing woman, full of faith and genuine care whenever I have dealt with her in the past, and I have been to a lot of WNB funerals. I think it is very encouraging the way of how she has run the company - with the reputation it has over the years as truly being the 'leaders in personal service'. I have dealt with other 'conductors' over the years, however none of which have the same dedication to care and service as the boss of WNB and the care shown through the staff who work there. I would see it as a privilege to work under such an understanding, caring and compassionate woman - with many years of experience and understanding.

    1. I never meant to comment on the boss's quality in this post, as a person or as a boss. Don't get me wrong, I do NOT mean to say she is a bad person or boss, both at the time and now with more hindsight I would never say that, as it is both off topic and not really true.

      I was trying to talk about the gender roles, how women and men fall into specific and designated roles and how this is a conscious thing at Bulls. To me the boss was a good representation of society, of the rest of us on a broader level, she was a specific example of a larger concept. Gender roles are assigned a lot and constantly in many parts of life, Bulls (and the boss) are by no means alone or special in this regard. Yet to understand these concepts we need specific case studies, things we can look at closely.

      But yes, not the worst boss or person (by any measure) just a good example of how we assign gender roles so easily, how everyone can fall into doing this without even realising and even I was part of this within not long. No matter how nice or caring one is it seems too easy to do this consciously and without realising.


  2. Anonymous15/3/15 14:32

    I also disagree with you about WN Bull. Your description gives a very different impression to the actual experience of working there. I have worked there over the past several years (not currently) and have first hand experience of what you describe. Your description of WN Bull belongs to a different era, when it was under different ownership. The General Manager is still there, doing a wonderful job, but under more enlightened ownership she is able to relax a little,some of the dress codes you describe for arrangers. You should be aware that Invocare has dress codes which are just as strict, for female and male arranging staff as WN Bull. Having said that, I prefer the high standards of both organisations' dress codes (requiring smart business clothing) to the sloppy appearance of some smaller operations I have seen (as a mourner) in Sydney suburban, and regional areas. The untidy, disorganised dress of some of them were really embarrassing for the family and mourners. People find it reassuring when the staff of a funeral company look tidy and professional.

    The gender roles you describe are largely dictated by the nature of the work and the nature of the client base WN Bull is serving. As a company with a long association with the Catholic Church, they have expectations to live up to. The religious orders and their members are often more progressive in their views than the more traditional Catholic families who have been using WN Bull for generations. The religious orders are happy to have the female GM attending funerals as a conductor. But quite a few of the more elderly Catholic (and Anglican) people still insist that there be only male staff on their funerals. This is something that will only change with generational change. There are also more male office staff now, and there have been others than the person you referred to, at different times over the last ten years that I am aware of.

    You may not also be aware of the service that WN Bull provides to people who are not religious. It is as creative and modern as the clients want it to be. And I do not understand your comment about arrangers being "banned" from attending funerals. That is definitely untrue. It would be silly to expect that an arranger can always go to a funeral they have arranged, because they would not have time to go when they have other families to see. It isn't practical in a busy workplace. I do know that when arrangers have expressed a wish to go on a funeral, for example, to experience a type of funeral service they haven't seen before, this has been accommodated.

    Finally, on gender roles, this is an issue where change happens more slowly in conservative industries. The funeral industry is one where the clients most of all, resist change. Within reason, the service provided is the service people are asking for. The staff at WN Bull may well have some different attitudes sometimes to those of their clients, but the staff there are motivated by caring for others, not forcing their own views on people at a the most vulnerable time of their lives. WN Bull is the place where people are most likely to get the service they want with the least amount of sales pressure, compared to anywhere else in the industry. That is more important than other issue to most people. And this is a free market. If you don't like the traditional look and you want all female staff, you can always go to White Lady.


Never hesitate to ask a question or comment on something, this is an open minded and free space.

If you want to contact me privately do so at: theothersideoffunerals@gmail.com