The always-delightful funeral home reality show is displaying, in its latest season, a whole new level of humanity and grace.
This story was first published on the author’s newsletter, Emily Writes Weekly.
Since 2018, The Casketeers has been gently showing Aotearoa how funeral rites and burials work, particularly in te ao Māori. The show’s latest season does something more – it honours and recognises the collective trauma we have faced, and continue to face, as a country living through the pandemic.
More than a thousand people have died from Covid-19 in Aotearoa. It is a number that feels unfathomable to some and yet acceptable to others. In season five of The Casketeers, set at Tipene Funeral Homes in Tāmaki Makaurau and Porirua, faces and names are put to those numbers.
Aunty Rachel was 91 when she died from Covid-19. Her whānau grieves deeply for her. She must be farewelled by just 10 family members.
At her small tangi, just one hour long due to Covid restrictions, Aunty Rachel’s grandson sobs through a beautiful eulogy and calls her a survivor.
He says, to her: “It felt like for the last 10 years you were fighting the good fight. Even with a broken hip you kept walking. I felt like you did that for us.”
Her son Hohepa calls her a survivor too, and “the last of her generation”. The room is sparse, the pain is immense, but you can almost see the deep love she inspires.
“To all of you…who are separated from us by a great distance we grieve with you,” Hohepa says.
She was struck down by this awful virus, but she had generations who adored her and was a taonga in her community, revered, an integral part of her whānau.
Every loss tells a story.
Every person is honoured.
In Covid times, this is even more important. Tipene funeral owners Francis and Kaiora Tipene speak of the privilege of caring for the tūpāpaku as their whānau grieve away from them. They do not see it as a burden, but an opportunity to show the many varied ways that we can be good to each other and honour each other – even in crisis.
As Whaea Rachel is taken from the funeral home, an impromptu haka outside brings the staff to tears. Kaiora says she felt it represented all who couldn’t be there, all who have suffered. As the rain pours down and the tears flow, it feels so important that these moments have been captured for us all to witness.
On the northern border, whānau have another smaller farewell as they cannot leave Tāmaki Makaurau to bury Whaea Rachel up north. They sing to send her on her final journey.
“I’m so proud of our people. They do what they need to do in order to get the words said, in order to express, and to sing,” Francis says.
All of the staff show reverence for the grieving while working hard to protect them. Fatafehi (Fehi) Tamale, a funeral director at the home, must check their names at the door for a viewing. She struggles with the indignity of mourners being forced to check in, and responds with an even deeper care for the families.
Kaiora struggles to hold back the tears as she talks about wanting to awhi and hold grieving whānau and being unable to.
Francis talks about trying to combine technology and tikanga. Trying to affirm the dignity of the whānau who come through the doors of his whare, while keeping them safe.
Watching this now, in the orange setting, is a deep and important reminder of the lingering pain of the pandemic. We are still losing our people every day. Right now, as you read this, someone is on the precipice of life and death due to this awful and deadly virus.
The pain of being unable to grieve in person, having to alter the way you and your tipuna or ancestors have grieved forever, is traumatic. A scene where a mourner runs to the closed gates of the cemetery crying the name of her loved one feels graphically violent. She yells “I’m sorry” and you can’t help but think about how many lives have been irrevocably changed since March 2020.
Yet, we are forced again and again to return to “normal” – or the grotesque “new normal” which feels just like the old normal but worse. We must return to mahi again with no time to process what has been and to think about how we can recover.
After a power cut at the home, Francis sits with Kaiora and senior embalmer Jay Evans. He encourages them to take a moment to appreciate that the lights are back on. It’s typical Francis. He is a gentle man who takes great comfort in the little things – his leaf blower, his battery-powered vacuum – but he deeply understands what is most important.
The moment is light-hearted yet it somehow speaks to something bigger, our inability to stop and see what we have been through as a nation. The tiny and expansive pains, and the agonies of grief that erupted behind closed doors.
It feels impossible to fully understand or hold the enormity of it all.
When Francis cares for a woman whose husband dies in a horrific car crash, he tells her not to view the body. He says he has told her to leave “her mamae and pouri for us to carry”.
Witnessing the mamae, and seeing what it was really like for grieving families during the pandemic is important. In our bubbles, so many were sheltered from the sacrifices made to protect each other.
Honouring these sacrifices is a way to heal, as much as we can. And a way to claim back what this pandemic has taken from us.
My greatest hope is that when we look back on this time we will not remember the cruelty and selfishness of protests at parliament, people screaming at each other or refusing to do the bare minimum to protect each other. My hope is we will remember those who held a phone aloft and tried to bring together a grieving family. Those who stood silently in respect at the border as families said another devastating goodbye. Those who did the mahi to bring together the old ways and new ways. Those who gave up so much to keep others safe. Those who honoured the lives of those lost from Covid-19. Those who grieved alone at home to protect people they didn’t know.
We have lost so much collectively. Individually for some, the pain must be unimaginable. To heal as a nation there has to be time to reflect on this and to decide if there are things we can learn.
This season of The Casketeers shows how much we gain too – when we keep community and dignity at the heart of everything we do.
The Casketeers airs on Tuesdays at 7.30pm on TVNZ1, and on TVNZ OnDemand.