Sexism in the Funeral Industry

    I started the Other Side Of Funerals to pass on what I learnt about working in the funeral industry.  So as to help those starting out in the industry but also also to bring certain topics to light.  One such topic is sexism.  The funeral industry is quite old fashioned in many ways.  As a result sexism is surprisingly rampant; as overt and conscious forms and as subvert and unconscious forms.  Thus i will go over some sexism and sex differences I noticed in the industry in the hope of highlighting this issue.

    Firstly 'sex' is a specific term different from but related to gender.  Sex is the physical characteristics of a person, whether they are physically male or female.  There are exceptions to this, such as those who are born with both sets of gentiles or those who possess DNA for one gender and yet gentiles of the other.  For example a woman was found to have XY chromosomes and not XX even thought she was physically female.  Gender on the other hand is the psychological characteristics and definition, whether that person think of themselves as male, female or another option.  For example someone may be physically male but see themselves as a woman.  But for the purposes of this post I am looking strictly at physical male and female or peoples sex and how this is played out in the funeral industry.

    There is a difference between noticing differences between sexes and sexism itself.  Sometimes we should take note of the differences and to not do so is instil poor form and inappropriate if not discrimination.  The funeral industry, while rarely strenuous, is often very physical.  Undertakers have to slide whole bodies about, moved and manipulate these bodies to dress them, move empty coffins and then carry 'filled' coffins.  An average lighter wood coffin is about 20kg, an average body is 50-70kg.  The combination of these is a fair bit of weight that needs to be carried, sometimes a great distance over bad terrain.  Quite honestly women are not as strong as men, as just about anyone should realise.  It is not just about size, as men are generally larger, but also to do with proportions and distributions.  For example women have more of their weight in their hips while men have more of their weight in their upper body.  There are stories of coffins being dropped by all female undertakers (although this is very rare).  And companies such as White Ladies are always all female (although this is not always the case behind the scenes), they are not allowed to have a guy or two just help to carry the coffin.  This would make it much easier and safer on difficult jobs.  We should acknowledge and take into account physical differences (and other related) between the sexes.  To do so would not be sexist but practical.  To not do so is in itself sexist as they are dividing the staff based on sex and yet not taking into account actual differences between the sexes.

    As for the funeral industry it is full of sexism and specific roles based on sex.  Take InvoCare for example.  InvoCare is a perfect model of modernity and democracy.  Everyone is equal and accountable at InvoCare, even state and national managers.  The system is extremely efficient and operates much like any other modern corporation.  As such anyone is eligible for promotion or a job based on performance.  InvoCare could not care less about religion, race, sex, gender or any classification that is not related to the task.  So they are quite willing and able to promote women as equally as men based on their individual performance.  This is good in that they do not resort to prejudice against women or affirmative action for women.  One might think that affirmative action allows discriminated groups to get a leg up and become equal, yet it does the opposite.  It is the equivalent of saying that group is incapable and needs to be assisted by the other, better, group.  In terms of this argument that women are not capable of getting a promotion themselves and thus need special help from men to do so.  The other issue with affirmative action is that just like prejudice it judges a person based on a general classification.  That the candidate is not an individual with their own pros and cons but as (in this case) a woman or a man and should be evaluated as such.  Thankfully InvoCare does not do this and has no affirmative action policies or practices (as far as I know).  Instead they look to the individual and evaluate them as a person rather than as a general group.  Having said this most people at the top of InvoCare are men, women have resided at the top but only one or two.  This is the same with most of the academic world where women do become a smaller minority the higher one looks.  But this is not necessarily due to a glass ceiling in that field or company.  As with InvoCare it is due to the current social system.  We participate in sex roles which impact our career.  For example women are more likely to take time off if a child is sick to care for the child.  Men are more likely to focus on work than family.  Thus the minority of senior women at InvoCare is not because of InvoCare but because of society.  As such InvoCare is not sexist towards in evaluating and assessing employees, it is too efficient to care for thing such as sex.

    However InvoCare is sexist in its use, role assignment and branding of employees.  They segregate and discriminate against certain genders and advertise these sexes as being better at certain tasks because of their sex.  Despite the fact that these tasks or attributes are not influenced by gender or sex.  An example of this is the whole idea behind White Ladys (an all female company), the company slogan is "a woman's understanding" and display images of a woman smelling a flower with a soft white background such as figure 1. below.  Lets look at some images of the staff from the White Ladys website.

Fig 1. The main photo for White Lady advertisements and promotions.
This photo can be found on almost everything related to the company.
Fig 2. The staff at White Ladys.
Fig 3. Assisting a child.
Fig 4. Assisting mourners.

    It is clear that they are actively portraying women as gentle, emotional and understanding, able to empathise strongly with the mourners and the deceased.  In most images the women are interacting directly with mourners assisting and empathising with them such as in figure 3 and figure 4.  In other images they are depicted as friendly and welcoming such as with figure 2.  Another thing to note is how the emphasis is on what they are doing or are like rather than who they are.  It is difficult to see their faces and identify them as the focus is elsewhere.  There is an unspecified emphasis in old fashioned sex roles here.  The women are all shown to be 'mothering' or 'nurturing', the way they are looking after the people, the way the tagline refers to understanding.  We should also note that they are all wearing skirts and white clothing.  The skirts are not really practical for the industry as there is a lot of awkward movement and bending needed and yet it is the company uniform.  The white is another strange thing as it would get dirty easily and obviously.  An undertaker can often and easily find themselves kneeling in the dirt to get a better grip on the coffin at a cemetery.  So a white uniform with a skirt is a strange choice for this type of job.  This only highlights the importance on identifying and emphasising the sex of the worker over the role of the worker.  White lady employees are female before they are undertakers.

    Now lets look at pictures of Guardian funerals, another big name for InvoCare which is mostly staffed by men.  There are no pictures of the staff, well, one but it is irrelevant as it does not show the staff at work and too small to be worth looking at. There are no pictures on any other InvoCare company websites of the staff at work.  In other words InvoCare has based a whole company of White Ladys on the staff, on the sex of the staff.  So they must show how it is operated by women and why this is beneficial.  I have however found images of Guardian staff in physical advertisements so they do show the staff.  In these images the staff are always shown as formal and professional.  They might be smiling and friendly but they are never shown to be doing or interacting like the women at White Ladys.  This creates an unsaid and implicit message that men are not as gentle, emotional and do not empathise with others as much.  The men in InvoCare owned companies are depicted as professional (posing formally in dark suits) while the women are depicted as emotional (posing casually in white suits and often smiling).  There are obvious and strict roles between the genders in InvoCare advertising and policy.

    Certain companies (which I will not name but are not InvoCare related) have very overt sexist policies.  For example they have a strickt policy of women must always be at the foot end on a transfer or when moving/manipulating a body.  This is because the foot end of a body has very little weight.  Most of our wight (about 60-80%) is above the hips.  So having the guy at the head end means he will bear most of the weight making it easier for the woman.  While this is taking into account sex differences which is not sexist their policy itself is sexist in the way it deals with these differences.  It assumes that all (or at least most) women are not capable or should not be involved in moving much weight.  There are many situations where this is un-necessary, pointless or stupid.  Such as with a child where there is little weight at any end, or if the guy has an injury and while able to work should not strain himself.  Plus it puts all the strain on the men and none on the women, swapping ends every now and then makes things easier in the long run.  Instead due to this general policy women always end up with the easier job while men always end up with the more difficult work.  Certain thing,s such as moving a body, depend on the situation and circumstance making blanket policies general, inappropriate and discriminatory.  One may think this policy is in itself not as sexist as I make out to be.  However consider it alongside the following point.

    These same companies do not let women drive.  If there is a man and woman on the transfer then the man must drive.  And these companies arrange it so a man and woman or two men are paired together rather than two women.  By combining the two policies about women (that they must be at the foot end and that they cannot drive) we start to see several possible discriminatory reasons and beliefs come to light.  Such as that women are not as competent drivers, that women do not 'take charge' or falter under pressure, that women cannot handel physical work and so on.  Women never end up driving or carrying much weight with these companies (physically and metaphorically).  This gives women an easier job and puts more work on the men, but it also restricts the role and responsibilities of women.  Limiting and judging women as lesser than their male coworkers.  So it is both discriminating against and for people based on their sex.

    This is only a brief and shallow look at sexism inside the funeral industry.  Sexism runs rampant and unchecked either actively through preventing women and men from doing certain jobs or subtly in the form of attributing certain characteristics with certain sexes.  The issue is bound in the fact that the funeral industry is very old and unchecked.  There is almost no regulation and no power over those who work in the industry.  A funeral home has the option to join the Australian Funeral Directors Association but there is no requirement to do so.  And if they do not meet certain standards there is almost nothing in the way of repercussions.  Such as with the funeral director who filled a coffin with bricks after cremating the wrong body.  He is still in business and just as bad, going so far as to stalk a woman with a hearse.  Most undertakers are decent people, but regulation is needed and could help reduce things like sexism.  Or at least bring these issues to light.


    An interesting side not on White Ladys is that the lady featured in the main pictures smelling the rose was fired and escorted out by police.  I do not know what she did or even if the story is true, but either way InvoCare does not care and continues to use her photo to promote the company.  I have also been told that InvoCare actually owns her image, they have the rights to use her face as they like.  This sounds very likely as I know they have ownership of certain other peoples images which they use.


  1. I live and grew up in a family owned funeral business and worked in the funeral industry since I was a very young man in the US.

    I read your article regarding "Sex or sexist" opinion and the possible need for regulation, and gather a somewhat negative opinion regarding (White Lady Funerals) being all women.

    You couldn't be no more correct about the rigorous task and awkward positions we have all found ourselves in at a church, home, hospital and especially at the cemetery.

    The industry here in the US lends itself mainly to men, although women do work in the industry but have limited
    and defined roles as well. We all just accept it here .As much as I hate to say it "It's someone's marketing niche and their cashing in on a feminist approach to grief."

    As with everything.... It comes with it's own set of problems! Women getting too close to someone husband theory.

    But, you got to admit. "They have no choice when it comes to equal work and gender discriminating between themselves to say the least."
    When it comes to getting the head or foot end of a coffin...
    But, if I interpreted your article correctly. You would like a more equal work description for the two genders, male and female.

    Even if laws are passed. Men will typically always allow the woman to do the lesser of physical parts of this industry. It's just the way it is, and will be, if your a kind and considerate over funeral professional. But, who the heck knows? It don't seem fair to deprive the male from their same duties though.

    We may see the White Lady's in cover-all's next digging their own graves too... But, look at it like this...
    Medical doctor's here in the US were typically all men. Medicine has taken a steady turn since the 70's and 80's resulting in women emerging in that market as well.

    But, you nailed it and very well about the industry.
    You are so right. Good luck on policy change. Go for it. It only takes one determined sole. Who knows? Them White lady's might end-up paying for their niche later in discriminatory fines etc.

    I do have one question? Do they ever take their hats off??? (They are considered service help regardless.) And it seems disrespectful in their position to not take their hats off in some respectful way?

    PS. "I did see what appeared to be a nasty spot on one of their white skirts"

    1. I have always wanted to go into this more, but unfortunately never have time. Basically I feel the 'all female' funeral homes are just as sexist if they were all male.

      And no, I have never seen a hatless White Lady in the field, but I'm sure they exist :)

      To me there is a very important difference between sex differences and sexist differences. Sure, men and women are built differently and thus some work is more appropriate for one than the other. But not things like driving, or organising a funeral. Personally I think our differences are there to compliment rather than separate; that men and women should work together more than work apart.

      This is not a simple or clear cut topic, to ask whether all female funeral homes are good or bad is to lose sight of the issue at hand. Women have been discriminated against (and still are) by the funeral industry in many cases. As such the all female companies were a decent attempt to fix this, to give women a place and role within the industry. But unfortunately this is just as bad in a way, from being excluded only due to their sex they are now being included only due to their sex.

      There is a decent and valid market for the all female funeral homes, I personally have nothing against them or their market/desire for them. It's little different to when some like a silver hearse instead of a black one, to each their own. My concern is with how women are perceived, as in how the female funeral homes tend to define and market women as emotional and caring. Across society women are employed in emotional labour (caring) roles over men, such as nurses or flight attendants. This is no different with the funeral industry, nor should it be really as the industry is part of society.

      However, should we want this to be the case? It's not wrong in itself, but it's not right to label and classify people simply on gender like this. We should be asking if this is another form of sexism, or if it is something else. Take the female funeral homes and use them to explore gender roles within our society.

      But no, I have no intent to change law or policy; I observe and comment, I don't judge or change really. Sometimes this aren't right but they aren't wrong either, and it's not my place or role to say what is right and wrong anyway. If someone else wants they can then take my observations and change the law, but that won't be me :)


  2. Anonymous29/9/14 21:03

    You will never see a White Lady with her hat off in the field. Unless there's a gale force wind.

  3. I think you are looking for sexism everywhere and I don't think you do the right thing! http://resume-writer.net/blog/sexist-job-interview-myth-or-reality has information about a sexism job interview!

  4. You state that the industry in the USA lends itself mainly to men. But what all women should do then? Yes, they are accepted to work. And here are some essential recommendations to protect yourself from possible sexist questions during the job interview - click on the blog post to fully review it!


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