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Family Wakes London Neighborhood's Diversity In A Funeral Home

John Harris, who runs the T. Cribb & Sons funeral home in the East End of London, stands in the coffin warehouse. The key to staying in business in the changing district is to diversify and specialize, he says.
John Harris, who runs the T. Cribb & Sons funeral home in the East End of London, stands in the coffin warehouse. The key to staying in business in the changing district is to diversify and specialize, he says.

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.

Gifts are left next to a wall of tributes at the T. Cribb & Sons funeral home, where some families keep the ashes of the deceased. The home created the space especially for the Chinese and Vietnamese community, who believe one soul passes and the other stays here.
Leila Fadel / NPR
Gifts are left next to a wall of tributes at the T. Cribb & Sons funeral home, where some families keep the ashes of the deceased. The home created the space especially for the Chinese and Vietnamese community, who believe one soul passes and the other stays here.

"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.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.