Alex Casey reviews The Casketeers, an ingenious documentary set within the four walls of an Onehunga funeral home.
It’s only two weeks into 2018 and we might already have stumbled upon a frontrunner for local comedy show of the year. An outrageous and over-eager claim, perhaps, but who cares? If TVNZ1’s hilarious documentary gem The Casketeers taught me anything last night, it’s that life is short, full of joy and absolutely suited to dropping casually outrageous statements. Also: laughing is good. Laugh at everything, but especially in the face of scary old death.
We all love a workplace comedy, but The Casketeers goes well beyond the jelly vs. stapler conflicts of The Office. The documentary follows the employees at Tipene Funerals in Onehunga, who start each work day at the end of someone else’s life. And what a workplace it is. The boss, Francis Tipene, is a man obsessed with cleaning – we first see him leaf-blowing the doormat and later scorning a colleague for scraping old chewing gum off the asphalt the wrong way.
“The funeral business is generally always busy. Why?” Francis looks down the barrel, a cheeky glimmer in his eye. “Because people die.” Indeed, his small hard-working crew of amazing characters take phone calls at all hours of the day, and sort every deathly detail from dressing the body to booking the ceremonial doves. “Our job finishes when the body hits the bottom of the grave or meets the fire,” Francis says, one of the gleaming golden lines that even the finest actor would struggle to sell convincingly.
Despite the unusual setting, tensions arise between co-workers at Tipene Funerals just the same as in any ordinary workplace. “Fiona is someone that can just piss me right off” says Francis. “Oh, take your pad off” scoffs Fiona. Working closely alongside his patient wife Kaiora, we are also offered incredible insights into their relationship. “Let’s not confuse how much I love her with how much I don’t like working with her,” says Francis. His second fiddle Scottie is “a pain in the ass” too, but they manage to put their differences aside to help families say goodbye.
The Casketeers is packed with priceless moments, and the kind of laughter you might not expect to hear behind death’s literal door. One of the most memorable is a single line caught on speakerphone as Francis drives a loaded hearse to the cemetery. “You’ve got the wrong body,” a disembodied voice says calmly. The horrifying ramifications of simple screw-ups in this line of work are so immense to comprehend that all you can do is laugh until no sound comes out. See also: the gurney flying out of the hearse on Sandringham Road last year.
For all the hijinks, the team remain acutely aware of their own mortality. Somehow defying a slap in the face, Francis dishes out fat burning pills to his colleague Fiona (the one who “pisses him right off”), because he doesn’t want her to die early. “The only thing that bloody tablet gave me was diarrhoea” she laughs to the interviewer. Francis hits the gym with his personal trainer and tries his best to conceal the fact that he’s been eating every meal with a side of fry bread. Unexpectedly, a funeral director trying to fight his own body clock are the most vulnerable scenes of all.
It’s initially jarring to hear people speak with such joy and humour about something that terrifies so many of us, but The Casketeers eases the audience into the subject of death with the same care that they take with each of their polished mahogany coffins. As the team prepare for an important royal tangihanga at Waahi Paa for the Māori King’s sister, they must ensure the coffin is pristine, touch up her hair, print pamphlets and get the biscuits ready before thousands descend upon the marae.
The proceedings unfold without a hitch but, more crucially, seeing the grieving attendees shows just how far-reaching and heartfelt this kind of work really is. By the end of the episode, it makes total sense that the people that deal in death would also be such a life-affirming bunch of folk. Nobody wants to die – or even think about dying, really – but being in the safe, hilarious hands of The Casketeers seems like a bloody good send off to me.
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