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The Casketeers' Francis and Kaiora Tipene burst into print

 

Last year, reality TV show The Casketeers was picked up by the mighty Netflix. Now, New Zealand’s favourite undertakers, Francis and Kaiora Tipene, have burst into print.

It was an unlikely premise for reality TV – the goings-on at a family-run Auckland funeral home with a strong commitment to tikanga Māori. But television producer Annabelle Lee-Mather sensed star quality (wise, kind-hearted and sometimes kooky star quality) in Tipene Funerals’ owners Francis and Kaiora Tipene, and The Casketeers became an almost-instant Kiwi classic.

As season three of the series unfolds, the Tipenes have released their memoir, Life as a Casketeer: What the Business of Death Can Teach the Living. It traces their personal story – poor Northland childhoods, love, marriage, then raising five sons – alongside their business story and dedication to honouring the dead, nurturing those left behind and showing people the warmer, funnier side of life’s only certainty.

The following extract, “A Future in Funerals”, picks up as Francis and Kaiora – not long married, both 21 and just graduated from Māori Teachers’ Training College in Auckland – moved back to Northland, where they’d found jobs and had their first child, Nikora.


IN KAITAIA with our new baby, I was still teaching tikanga, waiata and kapa haka in the schools, and Kaiora was working as a kaiako at a kōhanga reo. I loved it. Part of the work involved attending tangi and helping with the tangihanga ceremonies. Whenever someone who was Māori died, we as a Māori organisation went along to support each other. After I’d done this a hundred or so times, my interest had grown to the point where I decided it was what I wanted to do with my life. “Baby, I really want to start my own business,” I told Kaiora.

“Okay, honey. Sweet as,” she said.

“I’m going to start my own funeral home.”

“Cool.”

I could tell she was stunned, but I didn’t let on. I knew she was hoping it was just talk and by the end of the week I would have decided there was something else I wanted to do. But I went ahead on my own and did some research.

I rang around companies to see if they’d be open to employing me and letting them know what I could bring to them in terms of my knowledge of tikanga. Obviously, I couldn’t just start my own firm with no experience, though I knew I wanted to be my own boss one day. First, I had to learn about being a funeral director – and the only way to do that is on the job.

One of the companies I contacted said they would give me an interview, and by the end of the week I had an offer.

“Honey, I’ve found a job with a funeral director in Auckland. Martin Williams Funeral Directors in Papatoetoe will let me work for them.”

Now Kaiora had to take it seriously. “What about me and baby and a place to stay?” she asked.

“I’ve also found us a place to stay and a job for you at the local kura.”

“Whoa – that is serious,” she said.

We had to move for me to follow my dream. Kaitaia is a small town and the established funeral director there had the business to himself. Naturally he wasn’t going to offer me a job and train me up to be his opposition one day. So we packed up Nikora and moved back to Auckland.

 Kaiora and Francis Tipene – sometimes they’d go on a “date night” in the hearse.

In my early days with Martin Williams in Papatoetoe, I was mainly doing police work. That meant working on behalf of the coroner and police to pick up bodies in cases of unexpected sudden deaths – car crash, suicide, homicide. Anything that a doctor couldn’t just write out a death certificate for.

That is the rough end of the business, and after three months I wasn’t sure I wanted to do it. It really wasn’t what I had signed up for. I was more into the ceremony of funerals, embalming the dead and dealing with the living. And I did get to do a little bit of that, but even then, it was mainly reconstructive work where a body had been badly damaged. I thought sometimes, Am I really seeing this?, as I looked at what was left of a person lying in front of me.

Once, when someone had been hit by a train on the tracks near Ōtāhūhū, I was walking along the line picking up body parts and not feeling good about it. It wasn’t the dream I had had, but at the same time, I knew someone had to do this job for this poor person, and that thought kept me going. I was doing just a little bit to help restore that person’s dignity and mana. I worked that out for myself and that thought kept me going in the early days. If I hadn’t been able to see that, I’d have probably given it all away.

So I’m glad I got given that awful job to do right at the start. In the funeral industry, if you can do that work, you can do anything because you’ve already seen it all.

Kaiora was at home with our young baby and finances were a struggle – a junior funeral director doesn’t get paid very much. We were renting a house in Manurewa, and not in a good part. On one side was an alleyway where all sorts of people could slink around out of sight. We got broken into three times while we were living there. Once, burglars broke a window when Kaiora and Nikora were at home. We made it work because it was all we could afford.

The family on holiday in Fiji last year. Back row (from left): Kaiora, Nikora, Moronai, baby Francis and Francis, with Mihaka and Mikae at front.

Eventually, I left Martin Williams because I wanted to get more involved in Māori funerals and there was an opportunity with Lagoon View Funeral Services in Panmure.

Lagoon View predominantly did Māori funerals. That’s when I really began to feel comfortable in my role as a funeral director. I learnt more skills – such as removals (when the deceased is brought from their home or hospital to the funeral home), how to dress caskets, attend to the paperwork, and many of the huge number of tasks that make up the funeral director’s job. I was able to engage with the families of the deceased. I really wanted to give my all to those families and take care of them properly.

Our family moved to Mt Wellington to be closer to my work and our new home was a lovely older house. It was a big improvement over Manurewa, even though there was no insulation and sometimes water would be running down the walls inside. We bought two dehumidifiers and kept them running all the time, but it seemed the kids – by now we had Moronai as well – were always getting sick. Somehow life was good, though.

In the early days, Kaiora really struggled with what I was doing. She didn’t like the fact that I was coming home wearing the same clothes that I had been wearing around dead people all day, so she used to make me take them off and leave them in the garage before I came into the house. Once, when I had to bring the removal car home – even though there wasn’t a body in it – she made me park it far from the house. She was worried that the wairua [spirit] of people who had been in it would still be around. I think she would have liked me to shower with holy water too before I came inside.

I tried to talk to her about my work, partly because that’s what husbands and wives are supposed to do, but also because I needed to unload some of the emotion that built up with the job every day. I could only share my interactions with families and their grief, not so much my interactions with the deceased and the work I did with them, as my wife wasn’t quite ready to hear about it. None of my whānau wanted to hear about it either. At family functions, everyone would get to tell their work stories. “I’ve got a work story,” I’d say. “Today, I – ”
“No, thank you, Francis, no one wants to hear those kinds of stories. We’re trying to have a nice time here.”

I don’t really know what my whānau thought about me becoming a funeral director when there was no family tradition of it. They never asked. They knew I was following my dream, and I think a few of them might have been waiting for me to decide I had had enough and go back to a proper job, once I had got it out of my system.
But it wasn’t like that.

Also, Māori funeral needs weren’t being met well by traditional funeral directors. I liked Lagoon View because that was their kaupapa. Lagoon View was started by three Māori gentlemen. When I joined, Ramsey Joyce, one of the original founders, was in charge. I still didn’t have any professional qualifications – and I wouldn’t become a qualified funeral director for quite a while. I was too busy learning on the job to do any study.

Francis multi-tasking at work while looking after Francis Jr

EVENTUALLY THE TIME felt right to take the plunge and go to work for myself. I was 23. I had always looked up to the big firms like Davis Funerals and Morrisons, but I wanted to serve the Māori and Pacific Island communities. My wife and I were part of setting up Waitakere Funerals in west Auckland with an older friend and his wife.

Today, Kaiora is as much a part of Tipene Funerals as I am, but she wasn’t keen at the start. It was never her passion and I had to draw her into it. But because of the sort of good person she is, I knew it wouldn’t take much.

Although she didn’t like to talk about it at first, gradually I encouraged her to share my interest. Once I had a coroner’s case which involved a young woman who was the same age as Kaiora. She had died at Middlemore Hospital while she was in labour but before she had had the baby. It was a very sad case and when I told my wife about it, she was interested because it really touched her heart.

That led to us talking more about the job and the what-ifs of life. It felt close to us because of the experience Kaiora had had giving birth to Nikora. At that point, she got the emotional connection that makes being a funeral director much more than just a job.

So from then on, when I got home from work and she asked how I was, I would say, ‘Okay,’ but then just start talking about the experiences I had had in the day, especially the tragedies that reminded me why we do what we do.

One day, I was dressing a body on my own and needed help. There was no one else around so I rang Kaiora at home.

“Sweetheart, can you put the boys in the car and come up and help me with this lady?” I said.

“Are you for real?”

“There’s no one else here. I just need help moving a body.”

The woman was quite big. Her family wanted me to dress her but didn’t want to help themselves.

“All right, I’m coming.”

So Kaiora came up with the babies. Our home was only a couple of kilometres from the funeral home, but she was so reluctant she managed to make the drive take 10 minutes at least. It took her that long to prepare herself mentally, even though she had been around death before and it should have been fine. Eventually she arrived and put the children down in another room and joined me. I introduced her to the deceased woman.

“Drag her wrist and roll her this way,” I told her, and she did it without a worry.

I was so happy when I saw how she was acting. She was just naturally talking to the old lady, telling her what was going to happen.

“Dear, I’m just going to take your wrist and help my husband dress you.”

The human element was there, and I hadn’t had to tell her anything. She kept talking to the old lady. I talked to her too. And Kaiora and I talked to each other. She even told me not to be too rough. After all, except for our children, we don’t usually dress other human beings. Sometimes with a body, you have to pull quite hard, but Kaiora wanted me to be gentle.

Then it was all over and the woman was in the casket. Kaiora was still there when the family came in.

“My mum looks so beautiful – thank you so much,” they told her, and she told me later she instantly got a feeling for the work.

Then there were more cases where I needed her to help and she just drifted into it and it became part of her. I didn’t really notice it happening, then suddenly there she was, a natural funeral director.

Francis aged two, in the kitchen at “Nan and Pops”, Pawarenga

OF COURSE, NO ONE had heard of me, and the name Waitakere Funerals didn’t mean anything to anyone. We didn’t have any money to spend on advertising, so I had to come up with some way of getting us known that wouldn’t cost anything.

At that time, there was a programme on Māori TV called Homai te Pakipaki. It was basically a karaoke show on TV. There were 10 contestants each week and the person who won got $1000 and went to the next round. The overall winner won $10,000. I had always watched the show, which had a big mainstream following as well as a Māori audience. But I never dreamt I would end up performing on it.

“You should do this,” said Kaiora.

Apart from kapa haka and singing at funerals, which was something I had always done, I hadn’t really sung in public before. Certainly not like a regular entertainer. But I could see this was a great opportunity to get my name out there, so I gave in and we went down to the auditions at the Māori TV studios. They were held on Friday afternoon and the live show was later the same night.

On the way, I was practising and trying to decide what song to sing, but when I got there, they gave me a list to choose from. Once I saw “How Can You Mend a Broken Heart?” I knew that was the right song for me. I was lucky enough to be chosen to go on the live broadcast.

I went in hoping to win but never thought I would. There were some beautiful singers among the other contestants. Viewers text votes for their favourites, and that’s how the winner is chosen. I don’t know how I won that night. Maybe it was what I did in the interview when I had to introduce myself in the get-to-know-the-contestant part of the show.

“My name is Francis and I’m a singing funeral director.”

“Francis, if you won the $10,000, what would you spend it on?”

“I’d buy some new wheels for my hearse.”

Then I sang my song and must have pulled a few heartstrings because my name was read out at the end.
I sang “Save the Last Dance for Me” at the semis and qualified with four others to sing live at the grand final, held before a big audience at the Logan Campbell Centre. I didn’t win that, but I came second.

And it worked, because as well as the exposure I got with the TV audience, the suburban newspaper that covered the area our business was aimed at did a story on me. Naturally, the headline was “Dead Certainty for Final”. So far as anyone knows, I’m the first funeral director in the world to have based their marketing on a TV talent show.

Nan was over the moon. I know she’s proud of me but she’s a quiet person when it comes to handing out praise. She rang me when the show had been on: “Oh, you won. That’s good. When are you on next? I’ll let you go now. Okay, bye.” That’s heaps coming from her.

 Nine-year-old Kaiora and sister Apikera outside their home in Kaitaia.

THINGS DIDN’T GO WELL with the partnership at Waitakere Funerals. We parted company, and then Kaiora and I set up Tipene Funerals in Henderson in 2013 and in Ōnehunga two years later.

This was a big leap for us. At Waitakere Funerals, my partner and his wife were vastly more experienced in business than me and Kaiora, so we could rely on them a lot. It was different when it was just the two of us. Then the pressure was really on, because it was unheard of for a young Māori couple to be doing this. In fact, in both my family and hers, it was unheard of for anyone to have any kind of business.

There was some pride involved. We wanted to prove something to ourselves and we also wanted to make our families proud.

Finance was always a worry. Our payment terms were 30 days, and we hoped and prayed people would pay on time so we could survive. We did about a dozen funerals a month if we were lucky, but that was enough to keep us going with the help of our assistant, Tyrone.

He was a good friend who had the same values and principles as us, plus a strong work ethic. But, also, he was deeply entrenched in this tikanga, which was what we needed. Māori people were our market.

Starting a funeral business is expensive. We didn’t need to have a mortuary, as Auckland is lucky to have a very good freelance embalmer, Rikki Solomon, who does that job for smaller firms who don’t have their own facilities. But you need stock in the form of caskets, and hearses are specialist vehicles. And everything in your reception lounge and visiting rooms and offices has to be super presentable.

We bought everything from Trade Me. We couldn’t afford brand-new hearses, but we bought beautiful old cars and converted them for funerals and made them look good. Even now, except for our computers, we never buy anything brand new; it’s all second-hand. Our cars aren’t always in the best condition when we get them, much to my wife’s dismay.

My first hearse at Tipene Funerals was a 1999 silver Cadillac purchased from Robert J. Cotton and Sons, funeral directors in Palmerston North. I loved it. I drove around with it empty sometimes because it was so beautiful. It did many funerals and turned a lot of heads and was the pride and joy of the fleet. I’ve still got it.

In the early days, we decorated the funeral home with furniture from our own home. So Kaiora and I went without at home for a while, but we knew we had to do it. We wanted the funeral homes to be welcoming and comfortable for families waiting for their loved ones to be prepared.

Once we started doing what we loved for ourselves, everything started to flow. Of course, it had an impact on our home life. We were putting everything into the business, and the children had to fit around that. We lived on takeaways because there was never enough time to cook a meal. They were hard times. We just put our heads down and prayed there would be light at the end of the tunnel.

I was in my early 30s and never thought about my own mortality. This business was something I really wanted to do and back then I just kept going and dragged everyone along with me. But looking back, and knowing what I know now about how quickly death can strike without warning, I wonder if it was the best way to be. I gradually realised I needed to balance my own life between work and family.

Funeral directors do have a different perspective on death from most people. A lot of our work is with people who have died too young, in their 30s and 40s, whether from accidents or diseases such as cancer. Some are slow deaths and some are sudden. Some are people we have known ourselves. Some are young mums and dads with babies and toddlers.

The Tipenes’ eldest son, Nikora, as a young boy – dressed in his suit and polishing a casket.

There was one thing we did differently from other funeral directors that I think helped not just our work-life balance but also the grieving families we dealt with: we always included our young children in our work. To be honest, we had no choice, because with us both doing the funerals, the kids just had to tag along and be part of things.

This began with Mikae, who was born in 2013 when we were running the funeral home in Henderson by ourselves.

“I’m Francis. This is my wife, Kaiora,” I said when people came through the door. “Welcome to our family funeral home. This is our pēpi.”

Kaiora might have had a baby in her arms when a grieving family came to arrange a funeral or spend time with their loved one. She just introduced Mikae at the same time as she introduced herself. And people really liked it. I think babies make you feel good. Often the family asked to hold the baby and then they passed him around among themselves. It took their minds off things and somehow I think the new life put the one that had gone in perspective.

“He’s so lovely ... Can we give him his bottle? ... Is it okay if we change him?”

Sometimes people objected when Kaiora was pregnant. Not because she was tapu or anything like that, but because they were worried about her doing any heavy lifting of caskets or bodies.

The only time it got a bit difficult – and actually this happened quite a few times – was when we were at home with the kids and the work phone came through with someone wanting to arrange a funeral, and the moment I answered it the baby started crying. Then there’d be a hang-up so I’d have to call back the number on my phone.
“Hello – I just missed a call from this number ...”

“Oh yes, that was me. I was trying to call the funeral director but I heard a baby crying.”

“No, you’ve got the right number. Sorry about that ...”

I think being Māori made this all seem more natural. We didn’t try to work out beforehand whether people would be open to having a baby around when they were talking about organising a tangi. For Māori, everything is about family. We had positioned ourselves as a Māori funeral home, so people knew that we would be family-oriented.

Henderson was a natural place to start a funeral home with an emphasis on serving Māori and Pacific Island families, because there was no one offering this service to people out that way. When I was at Lagoon View in Panmure, we did many Māori funerals from Henderson even though it was nearly 30km across town. So we started there, where there was an established Māori community needing a funeral director.

Things grew steadily. I feel a great sense of honour that so many people trusted us. The business we have now is something I would only have dared dream about when I was starting out.

I ask myself sometimes – between the dead and the living, where is the line or boundary? It’s all part of the marae and home for Māori. In our chapel, there is more laughter than crying, which is so beautiful.+

Watch season three of The Casketeers on TVNZ, Sundays at 7pm.

This article was first published in the March 2020 issue of North & South. Follow North & South on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and sign up to our fortnightly email for more great stories.