8 Feb 2020

Francis and Kaiora Tipene on life and the business of death

From Saturday Morning, 9:05 am on 8 February 2020

Francis and Kaiora Tipene – stars of the hugely popular reality TV show The Casketeers – are hard-working, humble and kind.

As well as running two Auckland funeral homes, caring for their large family and doing TV publicity, the Tipenes have just realised the book Life as a Casketeer: What the Business of Death Can Teach the Living.

Francis and Kaiora Tipene

Francis and Kaiora Tipene Photo: supplied

The Tipenes were living and working as teachers in Kaitaia when Francis first told Kaiora that he wanted to get into the funeral business, she says. 

"I thought he was just going through that man thing. He just randomly came at me and said 'I want to start this business' … and then moments later he goes 'it's a funeral business'."

Kaiora thought he would get over it, but a week later Francis had lined up a job for himself in a funeral home and work for her at a local Māori-language immersion school.

"I was like 'come on, darling, I'll do all the gory stuff and you just be the beautiful face at the front'," Francis says.

Tipene Funerals opened in 2010 and there are now two branches in Onehunga and Henderson.

When the opportunity to star in The Casketeers came up, Kaiora encouraged her husband to take the risk.

"For me, it was an opportunity to educate people about who we are, about our profession."

The Tipenes try to encourage their Pakeha clients to follow the lead of Māori and choose an open-casket funeral.

Only about five percent of Pakeha funerals have this, Francis says, but the families who do are often surprised by how well-presented the bodies of their loved ones can look.

"The technology and the skills we have nowadays to present our tūpāpaku [bodies], no matter what religion, culture, ethnicity... it's a privileged job and I take great pride in that."

The couple believes that it helps grieving families to see the body – and stories from their clients confirm it.

"Lets present bodies and have open caskets and invite the family to have a viewing," Francis says.

  • Watch Episode 1 / Series 1 of The Casketeers here:

The Casketeers' film crew – a camera person, a sound person and the director – are at Tipene Funerals almost every day.

Although the staff spent three months getting close to the camera crew ahead of filming, at first it was difficult to work with grieving families with them around, Kaiora says. In time, they grew more relaxed and confident.

Families always give written permission for their funerals to be filmed and shown on The Casketeers, Francis says, and sometimes they even ask to be included in the show.

If a family member ever becomes uncomfortable, the cameras go off, he says.

"We don't want to make it about the filming. It is about the funeral."

When there's a disagreement about which marae a body should go to, highly skilled mediation is required, Francis says.

"I've often thought actually Kim Hill would be the right person to be the facilitator with the different people and the problems they have. It's about getting right in there into the depths of this person and then figuring it out from there'."

Fans of The Casketeers will be glad to hear Francis has now figured out how to use his laser spirit level – a gadget that has changed his life even more than his beloved leaf-sucker, he says.

He has some advice for new laser level users: "When it's flashing, it's not level. When it's fully green and the light's on full-time that's when it's level ... everyone's learning when I present things to the nation."

Although the Tipenes have been asked to start up branches of their funeral home in Christchurch and Wellington, they're busy enough managing their Henderson and Onehunga branches, Kaiora says.

And making sure the leaves are cleared from both properties, adds Francis.

The Tipenes have five sons together, in addition to Francis's son from a previous relationship.

After the birth of their youngest, Francis Jr,  Kaiora says Francis helped her identify that she was suffering postnatal depression.

It took a bit longer to accept it herself and get a formal diagnosis from her GP, she says.

"I took a lot out on my husband and my children and myself ... It was heavy and it was a dark space and I didn't like it. And I needed to overcome or get out of that space really quickly before I found myself unable to work or even focus on daily things."

Francis took action for his own health a couple of years ago and had a gastric sleeve operation on his doctor's advice. He has since lost a lot of weight.

"Your mind still wants to eat all the old food, eat a lot, but the body is… if you overeat you'll spew it all up. It's about trying to enjoy the meal slowly, which is the hardest part," he says.

Kaiora likes that they're saving money on food these days, but Francis feels sorry for the restaurants.

"They're like 'And for you, Mr Tipene?' And I'm like 'I'll just share hers'. I feel like they're thinking 'what a cheapskate…'"

The couple will probably go ahead with a fourth season of The Casketeers, Kaiora says.

"Te Māngai Pāho [the Māori language and culture funding body who support The Casketeers]they love it, so they definitely want another one. They love seeing our culture and te reo Māori spoken."

'I like the way the producers have done it. It's so subtle. I like that we're not forcing it down people's throats. It's beautiful.'