Casketeers: Life, death and missing biscuits

by Diana Wichtel / 09 February, 2018
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Francis Tipene in Casketeers. Photo/Tom Walsh

Black humour can be found in spades in a local series about undertakers.

When my partner’s father died, his body stayed at home for a couple of days, life carrying on around him. When the time to go came, the family gathered, gazing solemnly upwards, as the undertakers attempted to manoeuvre the coffin downstairs. It got jammed at the half landing. Much silent grappling and mounting tension before the coffin was unceremoniously tipped on end to get it around the corner. The young undertaker cracked some joke – maybe he just said, “Sorry, Terry” – and everyone erupted into relieved laughter. In the midst of life is death and in the midst of death there can be a welcome dose of black humour.

These days, according to TVNZ 1’s hilarious, moving and fitfully informative series Casketeers, undertakers are funeral directors and coffins are caskets. Some things don’t change. The funeral business is always busy, says funeral director Francis Tipene. “Why? Because people die.”

He takes a pragmatic approach to his profession. “Our job finishes when the body hits the bottom of the grave or meets the fire.” He’s also an artist – see a YouTube clip of him performing as part of the Casketeers on Maori TV’s Homai Te Pakipaki talent show – and the series is sometimes graced by his guitar playing and singing.

The series is part fly-on-the-wall documentary, but it would be a brave fly that tried to breach the stringent hygiene standards at Tipene Funerals, branches in Onehunga and Henderson. See Tipene lighting matches outside the funeral-home toilets to freshen the air. “I read it on Facebook,” he confides. “When our families go to have poos, it’s quite distracting.” His campaign to be allowed a weapons-grade leaf blower to battle dead leaves becomes sort of a running metaphor for mortality. “Most of the time there aren’t many leaves,” sighs his wife, Kaiora, whose attempts to keep a tight rein on the budget are often doomed by his big ideas.

There is checking out of the merchandise – “I do get in the caskets to test them. People will think that’s weird.” And dialogue that gets to the heart of the profession’s artful illusions. The team do some last-minute adjustments to hair and makeup, so a body is presented “not looking dead”. Here is where you will get expert advice on the art of being a pallbearer and on how to wash a hearse.

There’s the “biscuit raruraru”, the dispute over who is eating all the biscuits bought for the families of the deceased. Subversive funeral director Fiona is suspected, but the scandal goes all the way up the chain of authority. “I should lead from the top,” muses Francis. “Sometimes I eat the biscuits.”

For all the laughs, both the crew at Tipene Funerals and the makers of the series show compassion and respect for the clientele, living and dead. Bodies remain discreetly unfilmed. Raw emotion is sensitively handled. The series takes viewers to tangi and Pacific Island services and to the tender burial of a baby – tiny coffin wrapped in a baby blanket – where Francis and Fiona sing waiata, the only mourners present. He discounts a deluxe white coffin for the family of a young mother of four who died suddenly. Kaiora is worried about the bottom line, but comes round. “It’s a form of koha. It’s a form of aroha.”

As is demonstrated by everything from Jessica Mitford’s 1963 muckraking exposé The American Way of Death to such TV shows as Six Feet Under, there’s a lot of entertainment to be wrung from the way humans tackle the central fact of life: the inevitable ending of it. Casketeers blends only-in-Aotearoa moments with universal experience of loss and grief to make a surprisingly sunny, life-affirming show. Not to be missed.

Casketeers, TVNZ 1, Saturday, 7.00pm, and at TVNZ OnDemand.

This article was first published in the February 10, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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