Roses among the thorns: Gender and the funeral profession in Singapore

Gender is often a lens to examine and articulate social expectations of masculinity and femininity in society and the management of death is no exception. Gender is fundamental to how people relate to others and make sense of themselves. Narratives and discourses reproduce socially dominant ideas about gender differences and the nature of relations between women and men as well as society’s relations with individuals who do not profess to be either male or female.

The funeral profession in Singapore is overwhelmingly and glaringly male-dominated. There is a patriarchy in death management in Singapore. Inherently it seems that funeral directing is naturally tied to the masculine identity and the patriarchal culture in Singapore society; that this is a profession best undertaken by men who are better able to perform the heavy lifting, that men are better able to stomach the incredibly emotional situations, an experience that women are perceived to be less able to do, due in no small measure by societal representations of the “grieving woman”. As Ms Nicole Chong (Serenity Casket and Funerals), an embalmer mentioned in an interview on 7 October 2017, “You cannot bring your feelings with you whenever you go to work. Because I don’t know how many times you’re going to cry.” Such an idea, in fact, perpetuates the patriarchal nature of the funeral profession in Singapore.

This patriarchy in death management in Singapore can also be found from how the public and their male counterparts relate to female professionals in this trade. As Ms Sarah Ang (Serenity Casket and Funerals) recalled:

“Back then, females in this industry were not quite acceptable. They felt that females are dirty, so they don’t really allow females to touch the body or they don’t even want to talk to us when we actually want to plan the funeral for them. There was once when we actually went to a hospital and they said, “Oh, send a male here please.”

Ms Harmony Tee (Harmony Funeral Care) was on the receiving ends of sexist and unsavory comments from her co-workers when she first joined the trade. As she shared in a recent interview, she received comments such as “You are so pretty that I am salivating” and “Come, let’s have a hug.” While she dismissed these comments, one cannot but be offended by the cavalier and casual nature of these attitudes. It doesn’t help that at times the media tend to oversexualise and objectify women in this trade. Ms Angjolie Mei (The Life Celebrant) was described as “nothing like your average undertaker or mortician with her slim, model-like figure and beautiful appearance” (STOMP, 1 June 2016) and Ms Jenny Tay (Direct Funeral Services) “has legs like those of a gazelle.” (AsiaOne, 12 March 2013).

In fact, it is the responsibility of each one of us to speak up against sexual harassment and gender discrimination in the funeral profession. It is important to commend the many female professionals in this trade who have repeatedly spoken out against gender representations and stereotypes. This has in the past few years given rise to a certain discourse articulated by funeral professionals in Singapore that emphasises the soft-skills and emotional aspects of their work and how women are better able to exemplify these traits.

“People always think that to survive in my industry, you’ve to be tough, you’ve to be manlier, but I don’t think so. Women have characteristics that are important to the business as well. We are softer and we connect to the grieving family more easily.” – Ms Jenny Tay, Speech at Her World Young Women Achiever 2016, 25 August 2016.

Ironically, this is stereotypical in nature. At the same time, such stereotypes would inadvertently be juxtaposed with the “male Other” who is detached from his emotions and insensitive to the needs of bereaved families. Thus, we must tread with caution as emotions have the uncanny ability to reflect and reinforce certain gender expectations within societies. In other words, gender roles and persistent stereotypes are often perpetuated by both sexes.

Thus, in our conscious attempts to foster greater acceptance of women in the funeral profession in Singapore through the breaking up of gender stereotypes – and thereby improve our personal and corporate image – we continue to thread on socially accepted gender expectations, reinforcing present stereotypes and perpetuating the patriarchy. As Ms Jenny Tay unwittingly proclaimed in her same speech on 25 August 2016, “I am feminine, but I am garang.”

In other words, the appropriation of gender in any discourses and narratives in the funeral profession in Singapore are often motivated less by the uplifting of the standards of the funeral profession but more of a marketing tool to further its business interests and objectives. There seems to be a tendency on the part of funeral professionals to make known to the public the number of women employed in their businesses, with an attempt to articulate a progressive image for their respective entities without resolving the fundamental human resource problem in this trade: the high turnover rate and the lack of employee certification within the funeral profession in Singapore. Seen in this light, the appropriation of gender through discourses such as “she is eager to hire more women because they add a softer touch to the solemn event” is, in fact, an act of publicity that only seeks to advance narrow, short-term corporate interests. Meanwhile, the patriarchy continues to fester.

Historically, the management of death and dying was once the purview and responsibilities of women. Men’s absence from the household due to their economic functions are often the reason why women are the first point of contact with death. The responsibilities for the final preparation of the dead and caring for the bereaved fell onto the shoulders of the women in the households. Thus, women are the first funeral directors in the civilised world. With the medicalisation of death, the medical profession began to hold greater sway over matters of dying and death. Medicine and the dying were moved from the palliative aspects within homes and to curative functions within the setting of a medical institution such a hospital.

When death began to take place in the hospitals rather than personal homes and coupled with the increasing commercialisation of the trade, women were displaced from their roles in death management, giving rise to a male-dominated funeral profession. Thus, such a historical understanding should inform us that the present state of affairs is not “natural law” and there’s a constructive role for women to serve with distinction in the funeral trade as Singapore meets the demands of a dying [ageing] population. More importantly, a more nuanced understanding would take away the necessity of playing up the gender perspective in our conversations with the media and the general public.

As long as we continue to be overly fixated with the appropriation of gender as a tool, we will continue to miss the forest for the trees. Greater attention has to be placed on the fundamental human resource issues endemic within the funeral profession and for that we need the contribution of every stakeholder to play their part to deconstruct the patriarchy, enhance the governance of policies, employee experience, the conduct of staff, and the future prospects of the many hardworking individuals in this most meaningful of professions in Singapore.

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