Posted by Richard Rawlinson
The story of T. Cribb & Sons is one of business resilience in the cultural quicksand of London’s East End. A family-run firm of undertakers since 1881, its heritage is Cockney: close-knit, white, working class communities celebratory of both their roots and the material trappings of wealth: pie and mash and the dogs coupled with a taste for pin-sharp schmutter. Their funerals have been summarised as Victorian music hall meets Catholic High Mass: undertakers with toppers and canes, horse-drawn carriages and extravagant floral wreaths.
With its vicinity to London’s docks, the East End has for centuries attracted immigrants, from the French Huguenots to Polish Jews, the Irish to the Chinese. More recently came the Bangladeshis, Africans and eastern Europeans.
Meanwhile, true Cockneys have upped sticks to Essex. Many a London cabbie will tell you how they cashed in the terraced house in Bow for an all-mod-cons Barratt home in Brentwood while opining ‘the East End ain’t what it was’. And you only have to watch TOWIE to see former Cockneys splurging their cash on smart clobber and wheels, along with Sex on the Beach cocktails and cosmetic dentistry.
T. Cribb & Sons, which started with a single parlour in Canning Town, has also branched out into Essex, buying up undertakers in Loughton, Debden, Benfleet and Pitsea. However, of its 1,800 funerals a year, half are now for non-whites, especially Africans and Asians in east London.
It’s introduced a repatriation service for west African immigrants who prefer to be buried back home in Nigeria or Uganda. It’s also attracted the British Ghanaian community, increasingly content to be buried in England and who, like Cockneys, have a taste for flamboyant funerals, sometimes beyond their means.
Attention to the needs of a broad demographic can also be seen in details such as a Hindu/Sikh washroom at Cribb’s Beckton branch, and the way it’s mindful to bring Chinese mourners home from a funeral by a different route, in order to ward off evil spirits. It even provides limos with the lucky eight in the number plate. Again for the Chinese, it offers a wall of small vaults for votive offerings such as sticks of incense. At £750 for a five-year lease on a vault, this service is being adopted by white Brits, too, showing how cultural influences go both ways.
T. Cribb & Sons is now courting the Muslim market, currently served by a few Bangladeshi undertakers attached to mosques. The showy traits of the Cockney funeral are theologically out of step with Islam in which dead people are swiftly washed, prayed over and buried. But as with most cultural melting pots, people draw on outside influences, whether integration is approved of or not.
For more on this subject, see The Economist here. It’s a good read, rich in colour gleened from firsthand research. What it doesn’t address is the colonisation of former Cockney turf by middle class West Enders who have headed east for more affordable housing in areas from Stratford to now-trendy Hackney and Shoreditch. As these right-on Guardianistas grow older, might we see less emphasis on Cribb’s website on black-plumed Friesans, bling limos and lavish floral tributes, and more on wicker coffins, woodland burial grounds, ethnic-chic joss sticks and vegetarian catering services at the wake?
As The Economist writer says, ‘Undertakers thrive on the loss of their clients—not on the loss of their client base’. Meeting evolving demand is key. But you can see why some undertakers favour the big spenders. Flowers spelling GRANDAD: A PROPER DIAMOND GEEZER destroy the ozone layer? Gimme a break. Next you’ll be saying wreaths depicting the St George flag might upset the neighbours.