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The Casketeers: The funeral home reality show gaining a global audience

NOTED logo NOTED 4 days ago Fiona Rae
a group of people posing for a photo: The Casketeers, Monday. © Bauer Media The Casketeers, Monday.

Of all the hits of the past year, a reality show following the staff of a funeral home in Ōnehunga has to be the most unusual.

Suddenly, the process of laying a loved one to rest didn’t seem quite so onerous and it painted funeral directors in an entirely new light, too.

Francis and Kaiora Tipene and their staff became unlikely TV stars as they organised Māori, Pasifika and Pākehā funerals with love and care for the deceased and their families. The perfectionist Francis became a favourite, partly for his occasional unwise purchases and love of a good leaf-blower, but mostly for the pragmatic solicitude with which he attended the deceased.

And now The Casketeers (TVNZ 1, Monday, 8.00pm) is returning for a second season, which is no real surprise as the series has been picked up by Netflix for a global audience and is available in Australia and the US (here it’s available on TVNZ OnDemand).

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Great Southern Pictures’ Phil Smith has said they’ll try for a third season, telling Stuff that “if you can do death and comedy together and it works, then globally you’re onto a winner. Just look at the success of shows like Six Feet Under.”

For the Tipenes, it is about opening up people’s eyes and encouraging celebration of someone’s life. One goal is to “educate our families”, Kaiora told RNZ National.

She and Francis are unusual: not many Māori go into the business of funeral directing because they see human remains as so deeply tapu.

“Death is not an everyday conversation,” she says, but the show has allowed people to talk about the process and demystify it. The Māori open-casket and tangi traditions are seen as a perfectly normal way of grieving and acknowledging the dead.

“Let’s be upfront and honest,” said Francis. “Not saying things like ‘grandma’s asleep’ and so on. Grandma’s passed away now.”

It’s the balance of humour and pathos that makes the series so compelling, and the couple acknowledge that there are difficult cases where they lean on each other for support.

One of the more affecting moments in season one was when Francis and his employee Fiona buried a baby’s tiny coffin in the rain, giving the wee soul the best send-off they could, with waiata and karakia.

“It’s about to going back to one another, embracing our children, loving them and talking together,” said Francis. And who knows? Maybe in season two, Kaiora will let him have a new leaf-blower.

This article was first published in the January 12, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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