The Casketeers: Life, death and missing biscuits

by Diana Wichtel / 09 February, 2018
RelatedArticlesModule - Casketeers tv

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.

Latest

How Sam Pillsbury went from filmmaker to vintner
106015 2019-05-19 00:00:00Z Profiles

How Sam Pillsbury went from filmmaker to vintner

by Sharon Stephenson

Filmmaker Sam Pillsbury was involved in some of New Zealand’s most iconic films before more lucrative directing opportunities lured him to LA.

Read more
NZ innovators are leading a wool revolution – is it time to get behind them?
105928 2019-05-19 00:00:00Z Business

NZ innovators are leading a wool revolution – is i…

by Bill Ralston

Wool is natural, renewable and biodegradable so it should be a great time for the New Zealand economy. Why, then, are farmers, designers and ...

Read more
Activists are beating wool producers to the punch in selling a story about fibre
105991 2019-05-19 00:00:00Z Business

Activists are beating wool producers to the punch…

by Joanne Black

Most of us would probably not say, “I’d rather go naked than wear wool”, but that was exactly the message that 18 months ago appeared on US billboards

Read more
Belief in conspiracy theories is far more common than you think
105587 2019-05-19 00:00:00Z Psychology

Belief in conspiracy theories is far more common t…

by Marc Wilson

Conspiracy belief is more common among people who are less trusting and experience more anomie – they worry that the world is losing it and...

Read more
Pulitzer Prize winner Jared Diamond on the need for nationhood
105738 2019-05-18 00:00:00Z History

Pulitzer Prize winner Jared Diamond on the need fo…

by Andrew Anthony

Jared Diamond’s new book about empowering national identity to respond to crises is bound to tip off yet another controversy, but...

Read more
Jared Diamond: Finland shows how nations can survive adversity and thrive
105744 2019-05-18 00:00:00Z History

Jared Diamond: Finland shows how nations can survi…

by Jared Diamond

Today, Finland is one of the world’s richest countries, but it’s had to fight for it, as this edited extract from historian Jared Diamond’s new...

Read more
Musician Warren Maxwell returns to his roots to connect Wairarapa Māori
105544 2019-05-18 00:00:00Z Music

Musician Warren Maxwell returns to his roots to co…

by Sarah Catherall

Trinity Roots frontman Warren Maxwell is laying down history, recording 25 waiata composed and sung by Wairarapa Māori.

Read more
George Clooney is the driving force behind a new adaptation of Catch-22
105911 2019-05-18 00:00:00Z Television

George Clooney is the driving force behind a new a…

by Fiona Rae

World War II-era Catch-22 swings from drama to comedy as John Yossarian slowly loses his mind.

Read more