The first two seasons of TVNZ’s The Casketeers made international stars out of Auckland funeral directors Kaiora and Francis Tipene. With season three starting tonight, Alice Webb-Liddall caught up with the couple to talk their TV journey so far.
Alice: It’s been just over a year since the premiere of season one, how has life changed for you in that time?
Francis: At first we thought it was just a documentary about funerals because we never got to preview anything. We just sat here and watched it and from that the phones started ringing and we got busier and busier and we didn’t prepare for that, because it wasn’t about advertising for us, it was about people seeing the industry.
Kaiora: To us it was a documentary, and to my mind that’s a pretty boring kind of programme. So I was thinking ‘Who’s going to watch it?’ Leading up to it there were little ads, and I was thinking ‘Oh my god, did you actually say that?’ but people were laughing so I’m thinking maybe it’s not so bad. When it aired I was like, “That was pretty alright ,eh?” and he goes, “Not really. All I heard was a lot of laughing.”
F: Because I didn’t think there would be. I had no idea how it was made – happy, sad, I didn’t know. I was scared that people were going to think we were a blimmin’ circus around here.
K: Little did we know there needed to be some art and some balance put into it so that people could really accept funerals or death in their home. It’s been beautiful.
F: And with that came the growth. Before the show when funerals came in we would delegate and we had it all under control but afterwards bodies were coming in and it was just like holy heck who’s going to take care of whom.
Now we also have to give families times that we’re free to meet, where before it was their decision. It already happens that way in other companies but we were smaller and that’s what we liked about being small, is working with people when they were ready.
And have you become used to the recognition?
K: We get people from all over the world who want to stop in and sometimes they think it’s a fake studio but it’s not. We could be with a family and they want to quickly pull us away to say, ‘Hi, do you know you’re a star in Chicago, Illinois?’
We’re thinking, ‘where is that place?’
In the past couple of years there seems to have been a rise in what’s being called ‘eco-burials’. Is that something you see yourselves exploring at all?
F: It’s something I’ve asked whether we could do but our market is about all the glitz and the glamour. It feels so right, it feels right to do it that way.
K: With some families we can’t avoid going the traditional route. We have a matua who’s been with us for 17 days so we have to cater for them as well. But there are more eco-friendly caskets available across New Zealand and they want to show us what they can offer that market. It’s beautiful to know that those exist.
F: It’s certainly a beautiful idea. We’re born with nothing on and when you go out this way you’re just wrapped in a cotton cloth and buried in the natural burial plots, which are only three-feet deep to encourage vegetation and the environment, insects, to partake in your remains. That’s okay for people who don’t want a long drawn-out funeral. Once you want viewings and moving the body to the church then you can’t do that because of preservation purposes.
Those cultural preferences seem to be something everyone at Tipene Funerals is very aware of and you seem to be very conscious of catering to the different markets that use your services. Was there ever a point where this was hard for you?
F: It was very hard. We’re brought up a certain way and we had to change our mindset. We’re a business and our way is not the right way, it’s a way.
K: We have to put aside our personal preferences to serve others. It may not necessarily be comfortable with us to leave our loved one at the funeral home, but some families prefer to leave them in our care, and that’s fine as well. Putting all of what we believe aside is important to cater for others.
F: To be completely honest in the beginning of our business we were judgmental of the families who left their loved ones here, we just couldn’t believe it. For three or four days a person is just left in our viewing room. But after we researched more about how this came about, we understood it more.
We still encourage our families who leave our loved ones here to come and have some time and come and visit, because it’s so important and so helpful for your future and your grief getting that closure and time.
So what can we expect from season three?
F: There’s more death, obviously. We get into a bit of sports, some basketball. There’s a bit where the funeral directors will be playing a game against the embalmers and we’re out to win.
Also, I buy my wife a gift, but that’s all I can say. She gets a gift… it’s not the ideal gift.
Are you happy with this gift?
K: I eventually become happy. At first I was like ‘are you for real?’
F: It was for our wedding anniversary. I’ll just say that she loves the idea of a rough man on a Harley and… I try my best.
Whenever I think about funerals the first thing that comes to my mind is asparagus rolls. I’ve told many people that when I die my one request for my funeral is no asparagus rolls. Do you have any things you do or don’t want at your funerals?
F: I particularly want asparagus rolls, and you know why? Because we go to so many funerals and we’re not allowed to eat them. All we can do is watch and invite people to help themselves and partake in a cup of tea, but we can’t have any because we’re providing a service. You’re really hungry at the end of a funeral and there’s sausage rolls and asparagus rolls and egg sandwiches and club sandwiches.
K: And no matter how many times they say ‘come eat something,’ I just feel so bad so I say ‘I’m fine, thank you’, you have to turn it away and then you go outside and talk to someone else.
F: At the end of the day I’ll be dead so it’s her decision. But the asparagus rolls have to have mayo in them.