Kaiora Tipene Talks Grief, Self-Care and The Moment From Season Four of The Casketeers That Took Her Breath Away

TVNZ show The Casketeers has been both a local and international favourite for many years, thanks to the humour, care and aroha portrayed by the team at Tipene Funerals. Kaiora Tipene talks to Capsule about leading funerals during Level Four lockdown, having to step in when no whānau members could attend and how she keeps her mental health on track during stressful times

The poet Mary Oliver once wrote that “attention is the beginning of devotion” and that simple phrase demonstrates so well what makes the offerings of Tipene Funerals and their show, The Casketeers, such a profound experience. The mahi of Francis and Kaiora Tipene, plus their team of fellow funeral directors, has been to not only bring the beauty of Tikanga Māori into their funeral home, but also humanise and demystify a process many of us know absolutely nothing about. What happens to a physical body after death? How are our loved ones treated when they leave our care and are prepared for burial?

The level of attention paid to each whānau, to each deceased person, is extraordinary. We should all be so lucky as to pass through the hands of Tipene Funerals on our way out. “Here at the funeral home, we like to feel that we’re their whānau, for someone’s last days physically here,” Kaiora says.

That took on a literal meaning during the restrictions of last year’s lockdowns, which viewers will see when they tune into the fourth season of the hit TVNZ show The Casketeers, on screens now. “At the beginning of lockdown, when every business found it hard to go forward, there were no real guidelines. It was like ‘Shit, what are we doing?’ There was so much around what we couldn’t do and not enough around what we could do. And that’s when we struggled, because there were grieving families who wanted to know what they could do.”

The Casketeers team

Kaiora describes the nightmare scenario of having to completely change funerals overnight when Auckland moved through lockdowns with little warning. “When we’re at Alert Level 1 and then go to Alert Level 3, and then we have to tell the current families in our care that tomorrow’s funeral can suddenly only have 10 people,” she explains. This fourth season of the show started filming last May, when Aotearoa moved out of Level 4 to Level 3, and they were allowed to keep filming with their normally three-person camera crew reduced down to one cameraman who acted as a one-man band for those restricted weeks.

In doing so, the show captures a slice of our recent history that only those who went through the funeral process last year ever got to see. “What it looked like to go to a marae with masks was like… wow,” Kaiora says. “I forgot what it was like back then, even though it was certainly the same every time we go back into those levels. There’s nothing like seeing a karanga, with everyone’s mouths open so wide and you can hear their voices, then to see a mask cover all of that.”

There were several funerals where, due to travel restrictions, Kaiora and the team from Tipene Funerals were the only ones in attendance because all whānau members were outside of Auckland and therefore couldn’t attend in person. “People were ringing up and saying, ‘Please can I talk to my Dad, I need to say my final goodbyes… I don’t have video on my phone, I don’t know how to do that…’” Kaiora says.

“And I’m putting the phone up to this man’s ear so that his daughter in Whangārei, who’s not allowed to travel, can say goodbye to her dad and I can hear her crying and apologising because she’s not there. Then I find that I’m singing Whakaaria Mai, a very well-known hīmene song used across the country, on my own as I walk him to the hearse. That was probably the most challenging time for me – it’s usually the voices of everyone, so you can barely hear my voice. But when I realised it was just me?” she shakes her head. “Wow. The things we have all had to do.”

Tipene Funerals has close connections to the South Auckland community, the area that has been hardest hit by Covid-19, due to the high number of front-line workers who live there and who have played a crucial role in keeping Aotearoa safe for over a year. It’s a community that the Tipenes have long served and Kaiora says the energy out there at the moment is mixed. “There are some that are feeling a bit down and targeted, but then you’ve got those who are whānau community supporters out there, who are like ‘we can do this! We’ve done it before, we know what it’s going to be like, so let’s continue to stay positive’.”

It’s almost like a roll-on effect, she says. “If one is down, then a whole lot of them are going to be completely down. But then you have key people in the community who are doing well – and some strong social media influencers who are from South Auckland, that are sharing a lot of positivity. And then there are Francis and I, who are trying to stay positive for our whānau as well. I can honestly say that it’s not easy, but we are all finding ways to keep ourselves calm and positive.”

Francis and Kaiora

The Tipenes have become not only local heroes, but international stars due to both the success of The Casketeers but also the kaupapa of the business being such a stark difference to the funerals so many of us have experienced over the years. Not only does the show and their work not shy away from the details of death – the dressing, the intricacies of tangihanga – but it doesn’t shy away from grief, either. “Many people feel connected to the show and they want to share their own grief,” Kaiora says. “We get people saying things like ‘I lost my father 13 years ago and I’ve struggled to come to terms with his loss and now your programme has healed me.’”

She lets out a big sigh. “I love that. I love that we can help people in their grief. We certainly weren’t expecting any of this, we weren’t expecting to help people through their own grief or to move forward in their own lives.”

One thing that Kaiora says she is learning over and over again – both from being diagnosed with post-natal depression after the birth of her fifth son, Francis Jr, and from the emotional toll of last year – is how to direct some of that famous care back towards herself when she needs it.

“We can give, give, give, because we’re so used to that, that we forget to give to ourselves. There are times when I get home and get into bed when I realise ‘okay, I need to go and have my own time tomorrow. So I’ll go and get my nails done, or have my lashes done, or take a walk. I love my morning mochas, so even if it’s being able to sit and have that mocha by myself, outside… it’s beautiful. I don’t get that every day but when I do find those moments, it’s calming.”

“I strongly believe in self-care, because there are women out there that give so much to their community – because we love to – but we have to remember that we have to care for ourselves as well. And then of course, we’ve got our tamariki, and our husbands can be a part of that tamariki bunch as well,” she jokes. “So there is a lot of care that you should be sharing around, it’s just being mindful of your own needs as well.”

New episodes of The Casketeers screen every Monday night and are available OnDemand as well

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