22 Mar 2024

Kaiora Tipene: On life and death

From It's Personal with Anika Moa, 5:00 am on 22 March 2024

The final season of the popular reality TV show The Casketeers, which follows the staff of Tipene Funerals as they go about their important mahi, played out late last year. Star of the show, Kaiora Tipene, talks to Anika about life in the funeral industry. 

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Kaiora Tipene

Kaiora Tipene Photo: RNZ / Cole Eastham-Farrelly

Becoming TV stars

"When we realised that that was the finale for The Casketeers there was so much that came back to me. I'm always thinking of the grieving whanau that we cared for, who shared their journey with us, the kaimahi of Tipene Funerals and also with the show. I'm just blessed that they were willing to share those vulnerable moments with the motu and also with the world."

"When we were asked if a camera could follow us my husband disagreed with the whole thing, in the beginning. It took him a while to come round. What we noticed was social media was evolving and whanau were sharing certain moments of huimate. And so we knew that if we were going to do this, we had to do this our way and we had to show them how we manāki the tūpāpaku. So it's definitely something that we were a little bit iffy about at first, but we had to trust those who created that format to ensure that the loved ones were always dignified and whanau were always still having their moment with their loved one."

Francis and Kaiora Tipene

Kaiora and Francis Tipene, funeral directors and stars of The Casketeers Photo: supplied

"I look back now, and when you're sitting with a new group of people, introducing yourselves. I'm a lawyer. I'm a doctor and then you come round to yourself and you say, well, I'm a funeral director. There was always some type of awkwardness there when you did inform people of your profession. I like to believe now, over time, since the show has aired, it's demystified. People have come up to me and said, 'I just want to thank you for what you do. You've helped me through my grief. I can now talk openly with my whanau about what I want for my tangi'."

How they got into the business

"We were kaiako, we were teachers up in Kaitaia. We just had my firstborn, must have been about nine months on. I come home from kohanga, getting the dinner ready, putting out the washing, and he's like, 'I've got a great idea. We're going to start our own funeral business'. And I'm, thinking, 'Okay, he's going through one of those tiny phases where it's going to work type thing'. So I'm still hanging out the washing. I said, 'Oh, no problem, darling'. I kid you not. It was probably two to three weeks later. He says, 'Okay, we're moving down to Auckland at the end of the month'. And I went, 'Oh, what? What's going on?' And he goes, 'Oh, I've got my new job at a funeral home. Remember, we need to start our new business'.

"We're still learning. There's always going to be something new with every whanau, every day. For anyone that's entering the industry for the first time, you will find some challenges.

Kaiora Tipene

Kaiora's first time on the job was scary, but ultimately rewarding. Photo: RNZ / Cole Eastham-Farrelly

Her first time on the job

"I go into mahi and [Francis is] like, look, I've got to have this tūpāpaku ready. They need to go home, back up north, at 06:00 in the morning, so let's help'. I could understand that. So as I'm entering this room for the first time and about to assist him with the tūpāpaku, I'm, like, 'Goodness me, It's cold'. To overcome those fears, there's a whaea here that needs to return back to her whanau and she needs the awhi to go back to them. And that's what I need to remember. The whanau come in and they're crying and you help them through that process of dressing. Once that completes, and you've placed them in their moegna and you've beautified them, you've put on that beautiful makeup, given them those final touches, the whanau, they come back into the room and they start crying to you and they tell you, 'Oh, my mum looks so beautiful. Thank you so much'. And it's that feedback there that you go, 'Wow, I've helped this whanau, I've helped this mum, and I'm ready to do it again'."

What happens after death

Culturally, our wairua to our returns to Hawaiki nui. Since being in the industry, I feel that their presence is still with us. And it's beautiful when you can feel that."

"I love to talk to the tūpāpaku, I love talking to them like they're still with us. So putting on the lipstick and then if I hear something move or some type of, I don't know, something fall and I'm looking at it. 'You didn't like that lipstick? Okay'.

Kaiora Tipene

Being a funeral director has taught Kaiora to celebrate every moment of life. Photo: RNZ / Cole Eastham-Farrelly

The ups and downs

"I have had a chair thrown across the room in front of me. I've had a fist smashed through the wall of funeral home. And in, those moments, yeah, you get frustrated at them, but at the same time, you can't. Because that's pouri, that's mamae. And they do need, space to let it out. And there's so much happening for them at the time, which I understand, But once they've regrouped [I say], 'Come back, fix my wall'.

"We do get lots of strange requests. I was doing an arrangement one day, and this matua, his wife had already passed and now dad's passed away. The children [said] 'Dad wants to be buried sort of upside down in the same burial plot as mum. He's very funny. He believes that he could go with her all the way to heaven'."

Lessons from a life working in death

"To not take any moment for granted and just embrace it as much as you can. Before, I used to think, 21 was a milestone age to celebrate. But when we see tamariki passing away at young ages. Whatever age we're at, just celebrate your birthday with your loved ones."