This documentary series follows the staff of family-run funeral directing business, T. Cribb and Sons, and a handful of archaeologists as they go about their daily business: the dead and buried.
We follow 4th generation Cribb John, his brother Graham, and daughter Sarah, as they lead a team of 60 staff across ten sites: we meet the funeral conductors, pall bearers, drivers, mortuary technicians and others, and see their work as stories of every kind of funeral unfold. We explore modern Britain’s diverse burial customs – from marching bagpipe bands, to personalised coffins; from East End grandeur, to lively Ghanaian festivity, we take a look at how different communities deal with death. Alongside this, we see the extraordinary work of archaeologists examining burial practices from prehistoric man, to the Anglo Saxons, right through to the Victorians, as we examine how we buried the dead and found ways of dealing with the emotion of the occasion in the past. From the people responsible for putting us in to the ground, to those who may be asked to dig us back up again, we lift the lid on the dead.
Carlene started out at Cribb's as a schoolgirl on work experience, making tea. Unlike most people might be at that age, she wasn’t phased by the unlikely profession and was soon offered a Saturday job, before being offered a full time job once she was 18. She really has grown up with the business and is now a branch manager and funeral arranger.
Carlene loves how varied her job is as no two families are very the same. Whatever the request Carlene aims to ensure the family get what they want in order to pay their last respects. Last year Carlene graduated from the University of Bristol with a degree in Funeral Service and is looking forward to continuing to grow with the business.
Being the oldest of 7 girls Carlene is used to being the boss so can get bossy even with the boss! She describes herself as “a jack of all trades” so doesn’t mind getting stuck in whatever the task. in her spare time she is a keen decorator and enjoys spending time with her friends and family.
Fae knew she wanted to work in the industry since studying Egyptian mummies at school. Ever since then she has gained experience working in funeral directors and mortuaries before settling at Cribb’s in 2008 at the age of 17. Although she originally wanted to get into the mortuary side of the business she is now Cribb’s Repatriation Specialist, transporting bodies across the world for burial. With an office now open in Ghana Fae’s ensuring that the East End funeral directors standards are maintained on a global scale. Fae is keen to build on the reparation side of Cribb’s business in order to meet the East Ends ever changing community.
Fae loves her job as every single day is a challenge and as she says “you can never know it all”. One of the biggest satisfactions she gets from her job is how families put their faith in her to make the last thing they can do for their loved ones special.
Fae grew up in south London (something which she gets a lot of stick about from the North East London staff at Cribb’s!). Despite being a city girl Fae spends her free time horse riding and clay pigeon shooting. She has been a keen swimmer since a young age and has played the violin since the age of 8.
Graham is the 5th generation to join the family business, and is now a partner, having worked there for 46 years. Based at Benfleet, he looks after three Cribb’s offices with his wife Gay, and also represents the Cribb family on funerals as a conductor, particularly for the old East End families. The Cribb’s family tradition doesn’t stop there; Graham works with his sons Joe and Jack. Jack in particular is known for cheering everyone up with his relentlessly sunny take on life coupled with surely the most cheeky grin ever to grace the face of an undertaker.
Graham loves the variety of the work and takes pride in feeling like Cribb’s is one of the leading family-owned funeral directors. Referring to his work as more of a calling than a job, Graham doesn’t think he’ll ever totally let go of the reins. He’s committed to looking after the families Cribb’s has known for years and his focus now is to introduce his sons to these families and to ensure they continue the Cribb’s legacy.
When he is not out in his top hat and tails, or in the office, Graham is tending to his collection of classic cars and going to rallies. He also has a smallholding where he keeps hackney ponies, llamas, alpacas, pigs, sheep and other animals. His nearest and dearest are lucky enough to be given a constant supply of duck, geese and chicken eggs.
Being part of the Harris family you could argue going into funeral care was in Jack’s blood. From the age of 14 Jack has worked at Cribb’s part time washing the cars and helping the family out. Jack’s always had an interest in horses and started as the stable boy at 17. From the age of 21 he was working as the run about boy in the offices and is now a funeral director doing practically everything the company does.
Jack loves the fact his profession allows him to see a bit of England. One week he could be driving the horses in Cambridge and the next doing hospital runs in the east end of London. He hopes to continue to progress with the company and start to learn how the business runs to keep Cribb's going throughout the generations.
Jack grew up around animals and loves horses. He now owns 5 ponies so spends the majority of his spare time down on the farm mucking out or doing shows with them throughout the summer.
Before working at Cribb’s Jodie worked in retail but was always wanted to work in funeral care. After a days work experience 5 years ago helping in the mortuary she was determined to get her foot in the door at Cribb’s. Embalming isn’t always the easiest profession to get into but Jodie persisted and is now a trainee embalmer helping John.
Jodie is currently training to become a fully qualified member of the British Institute of Embalming and hopes to complete her course at some point this year. She loves that embalming allows her to do the last nice thing you can do for someone and how no two days are ever the same. Ambitious, talented and not afraid of getting her hands dirty Jody is now a vital part of the team.
John started out as Head Boy at school and has gone on to become one of the two Head Boys at T Cribb and Son. At college John studied accountancy but was dragged in to help the family business at weekends and release days. Back then it was a very small business so he got stuck in to doing everything from cleaning the cars to collecting bodies. Fast-forward 40 years and he manages operations from Cribbs’ HQ in Beckton, East London.
John explains that as the business has developed it has become more and more interesting. He gets huge job satisfaction from dealing with the general public and watching the business grow and become successful. The future for the business is really bright and as John explains this is largely because it is a family run business and the whole family are keen to get involved. As for his personal future John can’t see himself retiring, after all he loves Cribb’s and everything he enjoys is tied in with the work.
John has kept and bred everything from hummingbirds to rare pheasants and his back garden was like a bird park once upon a time! In fact there’s not a lot about aviary birds that he does not know and his fascination with nature has took him on safaris around the world. John has an MA in ‘Death and Society’ and is a founding member of the National Society of Allied and Independent Funeral Directors.
Known for his dry wit, and unshakeably calm demeanour, in Marcus’ 29 year career as a funeral conductor he has performed over 15,000 funerals and got through many top hats. Marcus started off in funeral care at the age of 17 as an undertakers assistant; making sandwiches and sweeping the floors. 29 years later he is now a funeral director and does everything from collecting the bodies at the hospital to getting the families to the wake. Marcus started at Cribb’s 19 years ago after being head hunted as the business was expanding.
Marcus loves the variety that the undertaking profession allows him with his day to day work. As he says “no two funerals are ever the same” and that means no two days are ever the same for him. He loves his job and could not imagine doing anything else.
Although Marcus doesn’t drink he still loves nothing better than going down to his local boozer to play pool and chat with the lads. When he’s not found in the pub Marcus can be found spending time with his two kids.
When hearse-driver Patrick moved over from Cork he brought with him some real experience of the industry; he’s attended over 9000 services in his years in the trade. Patrick has been an undertaker for 16 years, ever since a friend asked him to help out at a funeral. He’s been working at Cribb’s for two and a half years and his in-depth understanding of Irish funerals means he’s becoming the man to go to for London’s Irish ex-pat community. He is now taking funerals at Cribb’s and is in line to take on his own branch in East London in the future.
Patrick says he will never retire from the profession thanks to the huge amount of job satisfaction he gets from being an undertaker. One of the most satisfying elements he gets from his job is when he sees a family member smile at one of the lowest points of their lives.
In his spare time Patrick is a keen golfer (although in his own words he’s more keen than good!). An avid music fan he loves a huge variety of artists from ACDC to Neil Diamond.
‘Toppy’ is Cribb's resident all-rounder. He does everything from attending funerals as a driver and pallbearer, performing building maintenance and decorating work on Cribb's ten branches in London and Essex, and also oversees exhumations. Toppy joined the business at the age of sixteen after his mum got him in contact with the boss. He has seen the business grow from one branch to the ten branches across East London they have today.
In twenty-seven years working for Cribb’s Toppy has only had two days off sick and loves the job satisfaction working at Cribb’s provides. He enjoys the fact that he knows lots of people in the local community so the families know a familiar face when it is time to say goodbye to their loved ones.
Outside of work Toppy enjoys watching West Ham, apart from when his 4 kids are keeping him busy. Toppy is definitely a jack of all trades, he even built his own house. He is the uncle of one of Cribb's youngest employees, Mitchell, and always keeps him in check.
Becoming a funeral director is not an obvious upbeat career choice but try telling that to Sarah Harris, the great-great-great granddaughter of Cribbs & Sons' founder.
"To me it's completely normal, I've grown up with it." says Sarah. "It's a 24-hour service, so when my father and mother used to come home from the office they'd divert the phones and me or my sisters would have to pick it up." The siblings would have to take the information down, finding out what the bereaved family wanted. Yet, Sarah never imagined she would have a career in her family's funeral parlour. Sarah completed her A-levels in Business, Biology and physical Education before setting off on a gap year around the world. It was whilst she was in the outback that something clicked and she began wondering how the families she had helped looked after at Cribb’s were coping. Since then there was no looking back and Sarah is now a partner in the business and has worked at Cribb’s for 14 years.
It wasn’t always easy going though; Sarah had to start at the bottom going out doing removals, work on the coffins and generally learning the trade. Sarah now deals with a little bit of everything from arranging funerals to booking staff and if needed she can even fix up a coffin. She is even going to get her hand stuck in as Cribb’s get some of their new branches revamped later in the year. Sarah also has a very exciting year ahead; not only is she getting married but she has just become the president of the London Association of Funeral Directors which should certainly keep her busy!
Sarah truly loves her job. As she says she is “ one of the few lucky people who love what they do in their life”. She loves that she meets so many varied people and gets to hear some truly amazing stories of what people have passed away have achieved in their lives.
In her spare time Sarah is keen cross-country runner and clocks up hundreds of miles every year. Keeping fit and active is something that is very important to her but sometimes she loves nothing more than unwinding on the sofa after a tough day at the office.
Personalised funeral customs were as important hundreds of years ago as they are today. A team of archaeologists working near Stonehenge excavates an Anglo-Saxon burial site, discovering evidence of an English society in religious transition. Meanwhile Cribb’s takes on two bespoke funerals, one an elaborate Cockney ceremony for a well-loved son of the East End; and the other an intimate send-off for an ex-airman.
Respect for the dead has meant different things throughout the ages. While Cribb’s gives a young creative and an East End market seller the respect they deserve with very personalised send-offs, archaeologists are intrigued by the discovery of some mysterious skulls in an Iron Age ceremonial space. What will they reveal about burial customs in prehistoric Britain?
Repatriation director Fae finds out just how varied burial customs can be as she heads to Ghana to oversee a traditional ceremony. Back in London, funeral conductor John conducts a proper Cockney send-off for a plainspoken Eastender. In Cork, Ireland, archaeologists excavate an old convict graveyard for evidence of the Victorian burial customs which would be exported all over the world.
Everyone at Cribb’s HQ is on their best behaviour as the inspector from Trading Standards pays a visit. Cribb’s newest conductor Patrick is also under scrutiny, as he is given his first funeral to oversee. Will employer and employee make the grade? Meanwhile, archaeologists digging up a 200 year-old Oxford teaching hospital inspect mysterious discoveries for evidence of controversial medical practices.
East End funerals are all about personality, and the personality is reflected in the ceremony. Veteran funeral director Graham brings Essex to a standstill with a very musical send-off for a very musical character, while conductor Marcus oversees the emotional burial of a friend of Cribb’s. Elsewhere, excitement is in the air as Cribb’s is nominated for an award; and archaeologists discover a rare and mysterious Anglo Saxon sarcophagus deep under Lincoln Castle. Removing it, however, will prove a tricky task.
At a medieval abbey in Trim, Ireland, archaeologists unearth a secret, hallowed, burial site used by generations over 500 years. Meanwhile, the funeral business looks forward, as it offers exciting careers to the young and ambitious. The pressure is on for three of Cribb’s rising stars - director John’s nephew Jack has been charged with opening up a new branch. Will he satisfy Uncle John’s impeccably high standards? Young conductor Jim takes the reigns of an elaborate funeral, but runs into some trouble; and trainee embalmer Jodie is left in charge of the mortuary for the first time.
Veteran funeral conductor Marcus oversees the lavish burial of an East End boxing legend, while work-experience student Alfie comes in to learn the ropes. Will he be able to stomach the business of death? Embalmers Jodie and Chrissy have the unenviable task of preparing a body which has been kept in the mortuary for three years. Meanwhile, on the site of a medieval cemetery in Cheshire, archaeologists unearth the remains of both knights and peasants; finding that they were as segregated in death as they were in life.
The cultural fabric of Britain has forever been shifting and changing. Archaeologists use cutting edge techniques to understand how immigration has shaped our past. In the East End, Cribb’s has one foot in the present and one in the past – reaching out to the local Muslim community, while also overseeing an ambitious traditional East End funeral. Big Boss John visits the Cribb’s office in Ghana to make sure things are running to his exacting standards.
T. Cribb and Sons celebrate their 130th anniversary with an open day but how will the public react and crucially, will anyone actually turn up? Funeral director Marcus is put to the test as he conducts one of the biggest East End funerals of the year, with over 500 people in attendance.
Meanwhile, an archaeology team in West Bromwich unearth the secrets of burials from the past. They uncover a mortsafe, a device designed to protect a coffin from body snatchers in a Victorian graveyard.
The relationship between money and death stretches back to the beginnings of our history.
Whilst the team at Cribb’s are tasked with the biggest East End send-off money can buy with a gold-plated coffin costing over £20,000, archaeologists in Cambridgeshire uncover an ancient burial site that could be stuffed with treasures.
Every generation and culture has its own rituals when it comes to death. Whilst the staff at Cribb’s arrange an all-night traditional Filipino vigil and the funeral for a man who is to be interred in a catacomb, archaeologists in the heart of London reveal the historical rites of passage in the ancient burial grounds beneath London’s streets.
Meanwhile, Cribb’s offer newcomer Jodie an eye-opening experience as she carries out her first embalming procedure.
Death is very much a family affair; whilst archaeologists in Cheshire unearth a remarkable double burial in a medieval site, Cribb’s must orchestrate a double funeral for elderly sweethearts who died within days of each other.
Meanwhile, a new member of the Cribb’s team faces an emotional test in his first time as a funeral conductor in the UK. Patrick has chosen to conduct the service of his own uncle, but with his family to guide and a eulogy to read, will he cope with the emotion of the occasion?
Death becomes a celebration of life, as Cribb’s hold a funeral for a famous son of the East End, whilst archaeologists in Wales unearth the secrets of a 6,000 year old tomb and discover how our ancestors celebrated their dead.
Back in London, Cribb’s look to invest in the changing style of funerals, spending over 1.5 million pounds on a new fleet of hearses.
In Winchester archaeologists uncover the beginnings of a modern approach to death at the site of a 12th century leper hospital, whilst in London Cribb’s look to the future.
The team embraces the demands of the multicultural world around them, conducting a traditional gypsy funeral and organising a repatriation to Nigeria. Meanwhile, the next generation is put to the test as funeral director Carlene opens her own branch.