Family Wakes London Neighborhood's Diversity In A Funeral Home

Oct 10, 2015
Originally published on October 10, 2015 4:57 pm

For generations, John Harris's family has arranged lavish funerals for Cockney East Enders. But London is changing, and Harris has been quick to adapt.

He watches the latest procession go by: Two regal white horses with plumes of feathers fastened to their foreheads, trot through an East End borough, drawing a gleaming white Victorian carriage. Inside is a coffin bedecked with flowers. Eight black, custom-made Jaguar limos follow. The conductors wear three-piece suits with coattails and top hats and carry canes.

It appears to be a typical theatrical display of a Cockney funeral — Cockneys being the traditional, white working class of the area.

But in fact, the cars carry Jamaican flags.

"That was a typical East End funeral, but Caribbean style," Harris says. It's the new normal in the East End, he says.

Harris runs the T. Cribb & Sons funeral home. If anyone knows how the East End has changed, he does. His great grandfather founded the business and the family became the go-to place for a Cockney send off.

"There is a pageant, there is a ceremony," he says. "It is a celebration of someone's life."

Harris says that growing up, this was always a diverse area because of the docks and the textile industry, but it used to be predominately white and working class.

"They'd be out all weekend, there'd be parties, they'd be drinking, they'd be all smart, they'd have their suit," he says. "Come Monday morning the suits are going to the pawn shop."

Now, he says, that East End is no longer here. "The East End now has gone out to Essex."

Over the last 15 years, immigrants have continued to make this place home and soon the Cockney culture moved out to the suburbs and was replaced by working class South Asians, Africans and East Asians. The latest wave is Eastern Europeans and hipsters.

So Harris diversified and specialized the business. He put in a washroom, "primarily for the Sikh and Hindu families," he says.

On the other side of the door there's a wall of tributes where ashes of the deceased are stored. It was created for the Chinese and Vietnamese community, who believe one soul passes and the other stays here. The funeral home has made room for the gifts that families bring to the soul. Harris points out the "boxes of chocolates, crisps, bottles of wine, tin of coke — whatever they're favorite."

Others who saw the wall liked the idea. Now there are stern Europeans and white Englishman on the wall too.

"You get this cross pollination of cultures and traditions," he says.

Harris kept his old clientele by opening branches in the suburbs. And for his new Ghanaian clients he even has a branch in their own country, so that he can repatriate their bodies.

But the Muslim market has been tricky, he says, a population that now makes up about 35 percent of the area.

"We looked at the whole setup and thought, well ... how can we get in on this, far short of changing my religion."

Harris hired a Muslim woman and opened a school to teach young Muslims how to wash and prepare bodies according to Islam. He even launched an app for young British Muslims who've lost touch with their traditions.

"You press your 'What should I do this afternoon?' on the mosque app and it's all there," he says.

But so far, the London mosques still have the Muslim funeral business pretty much on lockdown.

"I might have gone too early on it," he says.

London's East End is constantly changing. It's the second and third generation — his new clients — that will want the same pomp and circumstance.

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Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

For generations, John Harris's family funeral home has arranged lavish funerals for London's Cockney East Enders. But the city's changing, and as NPR's Leila Fadel reports, Harris has been quick to adapt.

LEILA FADEL, BYLINE: Two regal white horses with plumes of feathers fastened to their foreheads trot through a borough of the East End. The horses draw a gleaming white carriage. Inside is a coffin bedecked with flowers. A procession of eight black, custom-made Jaguar limos follow the Victorian carriage.

It's the typical theatrical display of a Cockney funeral, Cockneys being the traditional, white working-class of this area.

JOHN HARRIS: That was a typical East End funeral but Caribbean style.

FADEL: In fact, the cars carry Jamaican flags. John Harris says it's the new normal in the East End, as he watches the procession go by. He runs the T. Cribbs & Sons funeral home. And if anyone knows how the East End has changed, he does. His great-grandfather founded the business, and the family became the go-to place for a Cockney send-off.

HARRIS: There is a pageant. There's a ceremony, you know. It is a celebration of someone's life.

FADEL: The conductors wear three-piece suits with coattails, top hats and carry canes. Harris says growing up, this was always a diverse area because of the docks and the textile industry. But it used to be predominately white and working-class.

HARRIS: They'd be out all weekend. There'd be parties. There'd be drinking. They'd all be smart. They'd have their suit. Come Monday morning, the suits are going to the pawn shop.

FADEL: Back at the office, he describes the East End now.

HARRIS: The East End isn't here anymore. The East End now is gone out to Essex.

FADEL: It happened over the last 15 years. Immigrants continued to make this place home, and soon the Cockney culture was all but gone. It had moved out to the suburbs, and it was replaced by working-class South Asians, Africans, East Asians. The latest wave is Eastern Europeans and hipsters. So Harris diversified and specialized. He shows me how.

HARRIS: What we've got here is a washroom. This was put in primarily for the Sikh and Hindu families.

FADEL: On the other side of the door, Harris points out a wall of tributes where ashes of the deceased are stored. It was created for the Chinese and Vietnamese community. The families believe one soul passes and the other stays here. They bring gifts to the soul.

HARRIS: Boxes of chocolate, crisps, bottles of wine, water, tin of Coke - whatever their favorite.

FADEL: Others who saw the wall liked the idea. Now there are stern Europeans and white Englishmen on the wall, too.

HARRIS: You get this cross-pollination of cultures and traditions.

FADEL: Harris kept his old clientele by opening branches in the suburbs. And for his new Ghanaian clients, he even has a branch in their own country so that he can repatriate their bodies.

But the Muslim market has been tricky, says Harris. And that's about 35 percent of this area now.

HARRIS: We looked at the whole setup and thought, well, how can we get in on this, you know, far short of changing me religion?

FADEL: He's tried everything. He hired a Muslim woman and opened a school to teach young Muslims how to wash and prepare bodies according to Islam. He even launched an app for young British Muslims who've lost touch with their traditions.

HARRIS: Nowadays, we all get straight on. You press your, you know, what should I do this afternoon on the mosque app? And it's all there.

FADEL: But so far, the London mosques still have the Muslim funeral business pretty much on lockdown.

HARRIS: I might've gone too early on it.

FADEL: London's East End is constantly changing. It's the second and third generation that will want the same pomp and circumstance, Harris says. Those will be his new clients. Leila Fadel, NPR News, London. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.