Career

The Casketeers: TV's family of funeral directors

Kaiora and Francis Tipene reveal the truth about working with death in their new TVNZ 1 show The Casketeers.

By Ciara Pratt
Death – while inevitable, it's often not a topic easily discussed. But for the Tipene family, death is their life and a 24/7 job at that.
As funeral directors, Kaiora and Francis Tipene spend each day face-to-face with death and the impact it has on a family and community. After the passing of a loved one, they will be the ones to answer a family's call, even at 2am, to tend to the body.
It's a job that is often hidden in the shadows, but the Tipenes are about to change all that. After much trepidation, the couple is letting the country behind the curtain to see how their funeral-directing family works in the new TVNZ 1 series The Casketeers.
"Honestly, I stepped back the other day and thought about it and said to myself, 'Man, we are not ordinary!'" Francis (34) laughs, admitting it was difficult to let cameras into their life.
The couple admit they were nervous about letting the TV cameras into their lives.
"Francis has always been totally against putting ourselves out there," Kaiora (34) adds, "but a friend of ours just asked to follow us for one day to see what it was like. And it was then we realised the good this could do. We want viewers to know who we are and to see that a typical funeral director is not as morbid as they may assume!"
Francis nods, explaining that his fear stemmed from his feeling of responsibility for the grieving families they work with.
"When people ask what the hardest thing about the filming was, it was without a doubt asking for the families' permission. I was torn. I've never asked a family if they are okay with a camera crew following us. The fact of the matter is they trusted us with their loved one and I felt tricky asking that we film that."
However, once he worked up the courage and asked some families if they were okay with participating, many said yes straight away.
"You can only ask," Kaiora adds gently. "And I think part of it is our connection with the people. We really appreciate that they trust us."
The pair agree that funeral directing is not for the faint-hearted. The new series follows their day-to-day tasks managing life with five boys – Haimona (16), Nikora (12), Moronai (10), Mikae, four, and three-year-old Mihaka – and managing their work including preparing a body for a funeral, interacting with grieving families and holding chapel services.
They are a rare young couple in an industry that usually runs through families for generations.
Francis and mum Kaiora with (from left) Nikora, Mihaka, Mikae and Haimona.
"We had no experience," tells Francis.
"We were living in Kaitaia and you would go to a funeral once a week. I realised there was one funeral home in the whole area and they were run off their feet. So we thought, 'Let's be another outlet for families.'"
The family relocated down to Auckland for more work and 12 years ago, decided to start their own business. But it hasn't been an easy journey.
"I wasn't super-comfortable being around death at the beginning," admits Kaiora. "You're dealing with real people, real situations and you can't stuff up. But I realised that I could bring my own way of dealing with death to families, especially as a woman."
It's an all-consuming job that often sees them sacrifice family time when a call comes in. But Francis says they make sure they celebrate the good things in life.
"There's so much dying and death. There is at least one body a day, but on average, we have about three," explains Francis. "So when it's someone's birthday in the family, we make it an occasion!"
At the end of it all, Francis and Kaiora believe what helps them through their emotional line of work is the fact they do it with their whanau. And even their youngest boys look to be interested in following in their parents' footsteps!
(Clockwise from left) Nikora, Haimona, Moronai, Mihaka and Mikae.
"The kids definitely know what we do, this is all they've known," says Kaiora, and jokingly adds that it prompts some awkward conversations at the boys' schools.
"I was called into school on Moronai's second week. The teacher showed me his picture in which he'd drawn caskets with crosses above them. And she said, 'I just wanted to know, is everything okay at home?' So I had to explain that that's actually what we do for work!"
"She must have thought we were a crazy family!" says Francis. "And Mikae just loves everything about funerals. One day, we came across a dead bird and our two youngest were distraught! But straight away, they knew what to do," he tells.
"They asked, 'Mummy, can we pick out a casket for the bird?' They really wanted to give the bird a good send off!" recalls Kaiora.
"And then they wanted to go to the chapel," adds Francis. "And we had to give a hymn and karakia! Kaiora and I looked at each other, and we knew that was the moment the kids had really learned to love and respect what we do."