Patsy Healy is polite but unyielding when asked to name some of the most notable people that W N Bull has been asked to lay to rest in her 26 years at the company.
She has personally attended to almost all of them: politicians, pioneers of technology, war heroes and religious personalities; people who have given, not only their grieving families, but the city, state and nation, special pause to mourn.
But they are a trickle in the veritable ocean of people that the company has served: the everyday people of Australia’s largest and ever-growing city; the children, parents, partners and loved ones of the countless many.
And then there are the funerals of the people with no-one to bury them, the destitute and alone: the funerals that W N Bull conducts in long standing relationships with Matthew Talbot Hostel and the Society of St Vincent de Paul.
(The company has also served many religious congregations throughout Sydney in laying to rest Sisters, Nuns, Brothers and Priests.)
“I don’t know that you can single out anyone in particular,” Patsy, the General Manager of W N Bull, says.
“They are all unique, whether we are conducting a funeral for someone unknown, or a funeral for a very public person; I don’t think you can single anyone out.
“It is a cliché, but death is the great leveller. We all die, and everyone ought to have someone to take care of things when they die.”
Now in its 125th year, W N Bull shares much of the history of the city, particularly its ever changing Catholic community.
It was W N Bull that orchestrated the re-interment of Australia’s first canonised saint, St Mary MacKillop of the Cross, at the time of her beatification in 1993.
The Sisters of St Joseph in North Sydney entrusted the company with retrieving and transferring her remains, from a disintegrating cedar coffin installed under their chapel of Our Lady, to a bronze coffin, now installed in the present crypt.
As John Harris, the owner-operator of WN Bull from 1986-1993, later remembered:
“I and several WN Bull staff members, together with two stonemasons, respectfully opened the tomb in which she had been placed in 1914 … An air of wonderment filled the chapel as our thoughts turned towards what was hidden from view. Everyone was fully aware that we were standing beside the remains of one of Australia’s greatest citizens.”
W N Bull was also asked to take care of the burials of Edward Bede Cardinal Clancy in 2014, and the beloved Catholic and Labor Party figure, John “Johno” Johnson, earlier this year.
Its Catholic roots go all the way back to its founders, William (Nugent) and Mary Bull, who began the company in Newtown in 1892.
For much of his life, William was a daily communicant, something uncommon among Catholics at the time.
At the height of religious sectarianism, the family became a bulwark of community dignity and philanthropy, with “one who knew him” writing in the Freeman’s Journal at the time of his death in 1932 that he was a figure Catholics “could ill afford to lose”:
“There was no charitable or athletic association of Newtown, or indeed of Sydney, that he did not help. His name and the name of his wife have ever been associated with charitable work in NSW.”
Positive developments in the society took the company with them.
In 1890, a newborn boy’s life expectancy was only 47 years (51 for girls). And in 1901, 10 per cent of babies failed to reach their first birthday.
As the company noted at the time of its 120th anniversary, its early records bear witness to the extent to which families had to cope with the death of infants and of parents who were still heavily involved in supporting or caring for their children.
(Infant mortality is now at 0.4 per cent and life expectancy for men is 80.3 years and for women, 84.4.)
W N Bull was also no slouch in adopting the latest technology, in 1914, becoming the first funeral company in Australia to use motorised hearses.
But there are things that have remained constant: the needs of deceased and their mourning loved ones.
Patsy told The Catholic Weekly that the work tends to attract a certain kind of person with certain gifts.
She thinks that much of her desire to “give back” was prompted by witnessing the care that the Little Company of Mary sisters gave to her dying mother in a hospice in Wellington, New Zealand.
“What we do is a kind of vocation,” Patsy said.
“That word gets bandied around now, but I think most significantly for me, people entrust their deceased family member into our care. And there is a sort of mystery around it (in society).
Someone might die in a hospital and people don’t really know what happens thereafter. People trust us to do the right thing by their loved one.
“I feel enormously privileged that people entrust them into our care, that they trust me and my team to do the right thing. It’s an enormous privilege.”