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The origins of Crazy Coffins, and of its parent, Vic Fearn & Company Ltd, stretch back to Victorian times. In those days, joiners routinely made coffins, and many carried out funerals as well. For practically a century, our forbears ploughed this furrow from Nottingham’s back streets. But the extinction, in 1958, of the founding family permitted one of its employees, Victor Harry Fearn, together with a colleague, Leonard Gill, to buy the premises and the company’s goodwill.
Mr Vic Fearn, a colourful and irascible character, had no taste for undertaking, but was keen on coffin manufacture. He changed the company’s name, bought some land at Crabtree Farm, Bulwell, and put up a small factory, Crabtree Mill. He hired further labour, and with new energy spread the Vic Fearn name.
For twenty years, the Company did well. After that, when Vic himself grew older and his partner died, the firm began to drift.
By the time of Mr Fearn’s retirement, in 1989, the world of funerals had changed. Funeral parlours were being bought and sold, and newcomers were entering the trade. Leonard Gill’s sons, themselves outsiders, joined with David Crampton, whose background was in textiles: together with the existing workforce, they kept the company afloat.
Today, the bulk of turnover still comes from the manufacture of veneered and solid timber coffins, and their sale to undertakers who, in many instances, have been clients since the 1960s. The workforce, too, remains practically unchanged, two-thirds having completed twenty or more years.
Nevertheless, the orientation of the company has changed. From the outset, the new management sought to reach a wider public, to step outside the traditions of the trade. The company’s first decorated coffin was made in 1990. It was so unusual, with its stags and swags of flowers, that The Guardian published a large photo. Such decorated coffins are now commonplace.
Ten years later, an elderly Scotswoman turned up at the door. She was clutching a Red Arrows coffin, only partly built. She was no joiner, so could we finish it, she said? A month later and the coffin was complete. We heard no more; but then, one by one, complete strangers came forward with requests. A man wanted a canal-boat coffin, followed by a second for his wife. We built a sledge coffin, and a coffin modelled on a kite.
One day, to our surprise, these modest efforts were blazed across Page 3 of The Sun. It called them ‘Crazy Coffins’: a name which seemed to stick and which we have made our own.
Orders trickled in and art galleries approached us, with a view to staging exhibitions: initially in provincial towns in England and in Ireland, and then in major museums in Switzerland, Germany, and France. Eventually, we were honoured with a two week exhibition at the Royal Festival Hall.
We continue to build enough conventional coffins, from our factories in Nottingham and on the Isle of Wight, to keep three trucks daily on the road. But the Crazy Coffin market continues to develop and with it the market in decorative ashes urns: we have recently made an urn in the shape of the Starship Enterprise for a lady whose late husband was a serious Trekkie. This was picked up from our Facebook page by George Takei, the original Mr Sulu, and went global. The workshop is presently building a coffin in the shape of a bottle of Jack Daniel’s.
We do not carry a range since we respond to rather than dictate our customers’ tastes: our Crazy Coffins are entirely bespoke and the only limit is your imagination.