If you’ve been a fan of the hit reality TV series The Casketeers, you’ll already be familiar with Francis Tipene. In these extracts from Life as a Casketeer (written by Francis and Kaiora Tipene, and published by HarperCollins New Zealand), Francis talks about being raised by his grandparents in the Far North, and how he became the country’s most famous funeral director.
A lot of people know me as that funeral director from TV.
But when I was growing up, we didn’t have a TV. Or the electricity to run one. Or a toilet. Or indoor running water.
Although I was born in 1983, I spent my first few years living like it was a century earlier.
I was raised in Pawarenga in Northland, mainly by my grandparents Walter and Helen Tipene, and I’m so glad I was.
It was an upbringing like very few people have these days.
Everything we did was done the hard way, and it has meant I appreciate every single thing I have now.
Pawarenga is on the west coast of the Far North and very isolated. Its official population is . . . not many. But my family’s roots there go back a long way. The closest “big town” is Kaitaia, which is sixty-three kilometres away. It’s not very close. It’s not very big, either.
But that’s not where I started life. That was further south, in Auckland at St Helen’s Hospital. My mother, Helen Tipene, is Māori, and my father, Francis Muller, is of Tongan descent.
They were two young sweethearts — much too young as far as my mum’s mother was concerned. Dad was twenty and Mum was just eighteen. When I arrived, my grandmother swooped down from Northland and told her daughter how it was going to be.
“You can’t take care of a baby at your age,” said Nan. “Give him to us and we will look after him.”
Nan was and is our family matriarch and the biggest single influence on my life. She is very traditional in all things, a great upholder of tikanga, and the person we always run things past when we’re not sure.
To this day, I might think I can get away with something, but suddenly Nan is there shaking her head: “No, no, no, no.” I love that she always does that. She keeps me grounded and stops my head getting too big.
And so I was handed over to my grandparents and taken north. I was a whāngai kid — a pretty common practice used by Māori families to make sure their children are brought up okay.
Which I was.
Thanks to my being in that TV show, a lot of people know a bit about me — but they often only know half the story. For instance, a lot of Tongan people who come in to arrange funerals know I’m half Tongan, on my father’s side, and they ask why I am a Tipene, not a Muller, so I have to explain to them about my Māori family and the whāngai system.
I was given my Māori whānau surname at birth. It’s on my birth certificate. Mum did the paperwork, although I think the name might have been my grandmother’s idea. Whatever the reason, it was obviously out of my hands.
. . .
I didn’t have a lot to do with my father as a child, but had regular contact with my mother, when Nan and Pop would take me on the five-hour drive to Auckland to see her. I loved it. It was such a contrast to Pawarenga that it was like going on holiday overseas.
Coming into Auckland over the Harbour Bridge and seeing that huge city with all its tall buildings spread out and with the lights on at night was amazing. Mum lived in a regular state house in Glen Eden, but it was as good as Disneyland to me. I was fascinated by the electric lighting, and spent ages just flicking the switch on and off. And not only that — Mum had a tap you could turn to make water come out, and a toilet you could flush.
She also had a key to the swimming pool at the local school, which was great. The creek at Pawarenga was great too, but the pool in Auckland was something else.
It was all so simple. Going to the pools and having fish and chips afterwards was massive. I also loved driving anywhere in the car and going into the centre of town at night to see all the bright lights.
Back up north, if I got $20 for my birthday or managed to earn it somehow, I never wanted to spend it. I wanted to look at it and love it and hold on to it until I got to the city.
Around that time, the two-dollar shops were just coming in, and they were heaven to me. You could get so much for $2. So, when I was ready to part with the $20 bill I had obsessed over for so long, that was where I went.
It was hard seeing my mum in that off-and-on way because I was always so happy to get there and then so sad when we had to leave. I knew she was my mum and I knew she loved me and I did miss her when we were apart. When it was time to go, I cried and cried. I wanted to stay with her in the house where you could turn the lights on and off.
Nan was the strong one: “No. You’ve got to come home.” She and my mother would have fights about it.
“There’s nothing up there for him,” said my mother, which was partly true.
“You can’t even look after him,” said my grandmother, which was also true.
I wasn’t happy, sitting in the back of the car as we headed back north.
“Mum said there’s nothing up there for me,” I complained once.
“Why do I have to come back?”
Looking back at it now, I wouldn’t have had it any other way.
I’m so thankful, although at the time I was angry at Nan and sad for Mum. I’m thankful to Mum for wanting me and to Nan for taking me. And they both know that’s how I feel.
Mum did manage to get up north for a visit too from time to time. I know she brought up the idea of me going back to live with her, but Nan was adamant.
There might have been an argument, but Mum wouldn’t have got very far in an argument with Nan.
I don’t hold it against either of them. I love them both equally, but I’m grateful my mother let me go with Nan. I love her even more now for doing that.
I never wanted to do The Casketeers.
The TV producer Annabelle Lee-Harris knew us because she had followed us some time ago when we were with Waitakere Funerals. She did a little story on Māori funeral directors for Native Affairs and she and my wife had stayed friends ever since.
They had been texting each other.
“Would you be interested in us doing a TV show on you guys?” Annabelle asked one day. “Like Keeping up with the Kardashians but with funerals.”
And she said it would have humour at the centre of it — the humorous angle was there right from the start.
“What do you think, Francis?’ said Kaiora, after she had filled me in on the basics.
Obviously, with “Finalist on Homai te Pakipaki” on my CV, it wouldn’t have been my first experience in front of the TV cameras. But this was quite different.
“No, no, no,” I said. “Absolutely not.”
I said no a lot of times. I didn’t think people would want to see it anyway. About the only time you saw funerals or funeral directors on TV was if there was an important funeral being shown on the news.
But Annabelle kept talking to Kaiora about it.
“How would it look?” Kaiora wanted to know.
“Leave it to me. It will be fine,” said Annabelle.
My wife thought it was a bit of a joke. We wondered why anyone would want to make a programme like that, let alone watch it.
At the time, for some people, putting a notice on social media for their loved ones was still a no-no. That was going too far in public. But others were slowly accepting these kinds of changes and allowing them to be aired.
I kept saying “No” for at least another year. I didn’t think it would look right. I was just being a funeral director. But maybe attitudes changed in all the time I had been saying no, because eventually I said yes.
A crew came in — just a camera and a sound person — and followed us around for two days.
And as luck would have it, not long after they arrived, we got a funeral in.
“I just have to go and get a body,” I said, excusing myself.
“Can you ask them if we can come with the camera?” said Annabelle.
“Please — just ask them?”
But I did and it was okay with them. They were whānau and they were quite happy about it because they trusted us. They filmed me doing a karakia with the loved one before removing the body. I was in the middle of the prayer when the phone rang.
“Oh, that might be God ringing in and saying, ‘Hang on,’” I said, and everybody laughed.
At another point, I was calling Fiona from our staff Princess Fiona, after the character in Shrek. She didn’t like it but it was all caught on film and when we watched it together she laughed.
So they not only had a real funeral, they had the humour they wanted in there as well. And alongside that they managed to capture some of those special sacred moments that are also part of the process.
When it came to the part where we picked the body up, I thought it was so beautiful. And then they played music while we were driving off and that was beautiful too. It struck me that I had never seen anything like it on TV before, so I was happy to be part of it.
Over the two days, they managed to collect all sorts of little moments and the production team ended up totally in love with it. Although it was only ever going to be a pilot to persuade someone to buy the show, a lot of the elements that people would love most about The Casketeers were already there in those first two days.
They brought it to us to have a look at when it was done.
Kaiora was a bit nervous, which was only natural. She hadn’t been the centre of a TV programme before. But she had a lot of trust in Annabelle. And we watched it and thought it was cool. They had music in the background — Tūtira Mai Ngā Iwi.
And it didn’t seem awkward at all. We liked it.
There was only one tiny bit I wasn’t happy with — but I do have a way of letting small details bug me. In this case, it was how at the end of the pilot they got me to say: “I’m Francis. I’m the boss. This is my funeral home and this is Tipene Funerals.”
At the time, I didn’t mind it and other people liked it, but later I thought: People know I’m the boss. I shouldn’t have to say it.
This extract is from Life of a Casketeer, written by Francis and Kaiora Tipene, and published by HarperCollins New Zealand.
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