26 Jun 2021

Francis and Kaiora Tipene: The traditions of tikanga

8:29 pm on 26 June 2021

The stars of The Casketeers, Francis and Kaiora Tipene, explain how the traditions of tikanga shape their lives while juggling five sons, three businesses, and a television show in their new book Tikanga: Living with the Traditions of Te Ao Māori.

Francis and Kaiora Tipene

Francis and Kaiora Tipene Photo: supplied

Tikanga follows the Tipenes' bestselling memoir Life as a Casketeer, released last year, but they are quick to point out that it's not an encyclopaedia of Māori culture or a book of Māori rituals, nor is it a phrase book for learning some te reo Māori.

It is about how the concepts of tikanga affect their day-to-day lives, and largely looks through the filter of the processes surrounding death - which they deal with every day in their profession as funeral directors.

Imparting knowledge of tikanga to non-Māori people can be difficult, according to Francis Tipene, but he says it's important to try and communicate what it means to those who might not understand.

"We want people to know and we want non-Māori to learn and to understand us, but sometimes we're not very open to imparting knowledge and sharing it and that's been our own problem as Māori people sometimes," he says.

"Sometimes it can be very difficult, especially when we're not born teachers and we're not good at translating, because a lot of it is we've done things the way we do things because that's what we were taught and we were never told why. It's just we've got to follow what our ancestors and our grandparents and our tupuna have done."

The difference between tikanga and kawa is one thing not all might be aware of - while kawa refers to stricter rules and procedures, tikanga is constantly evolving.

"Tikanga has a way of changing, whereas kawa seems to be very formal and strict. It's something that can't be changed on marae," says Kaiora Tipene.

One example of the changing nature of tikanga could be seen in how the couple's children are treated on marae in the present day, she says.

"I feel like they're very spoilt in a way on marae because my father was very strict and our elders on marae were very strict in terms of tradition and tikanga and kawa, whereas children nowadays they can run anywhere they want to and won't be stopped.

"The kaumātua will get up and say 'why you growling them, just leave them'. And I look back thinking, you never said that to me when I was young, but you know, that's just how it goes."

Growing demand from Pākehā

As their fame grows, the Tipenes have had more requests for funerals from Pākehā families, which Francis describes as "just so beautiful".

"Every time I get a Pākehā funeral come through I go wow, it's so beautiful, it's a blessing because we're able to share and show them another way," he says.

Francis says they don't put their tikanga onto the proceedings unless requested - and he doesn't mind if Pākehā clients want to use aspects of it in the service.

"Probably for most Māori it's not ok, but for me it's beautiful. Anything we can throw in there, be it big or small, it's just so beautiful. Some of them just say, 'Francis could you sing a Māori hymn'. Oh my goodness that's so lovely, yes. Could you do a small karakia, of course, anything that we're able to."

While Francis says he admires some aspects of Pākehā funerals, he feels they are lacking in one area - time.

"I love the punctuality and the cleanliness of Pākehā funerals, but I do think they lack a bit of time in terms of spending time with their loved one, with families and just being able to cry and talk and sing and laugh together, instead of having all turn up on the final hour on the day of the funeral and doing it all then. That's a bit tough to be honest."

When it comes to Māori tangihanga, tikanga is also changing in some ways - for example, more Māori are opting for cremation.

"Up until 20-25 years ago, it still was something we never did and just of lately, cremation is becoming a little bit more common," says Kaiora.

"So as a people we have to create a new tikanga of how we're going to manage cremation, because we can't just say we don't cremate, because people are going to cremate."

She gives the example of one aunty she knew, who asked if she could, on her funeral day, be uplifted, transferred to the crematorium and then back for burial.

"Over time, our people have to accept that we're going to change. And that's where tikanga is evolving," she says.

However, in the end, tradition and tikanga came through.

"In her final days is where she changed her mind. She says, 'actually bub … I want to acknowledge my people, respect their wishes and I'll be buried with my tupuna'".

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