The Business of Death
Life as a Casketeer by Francis and Kaiora Tipene
Francis started Tipene Funerals with his wife Kaiora when he was just 23. It was tough going, but with a lot of hard work - and some publicity from appearing on Homai te Pakipaki, a Māori karaoke show - they managed to find a niche in organising funerals that observe Māori customs. They also have a reality TV show called The Casketeers. Life as a Casketeer is something between an autobiography and a memoir of the trade.
It seemed inevitable that Francis would end up in funerals. His own life was steeped in tikanga, from his education at Hato Petera, a Catholic Māori boarding school, to his childhood in Pawarenga, a tiny settlement on the Whangape harbour in the Far North. He grew up in the 80s in a house with no running water. The only electricity was supplied by generator. The community was extremely Māori and extremely Catholic, with life centring on church and marae:
Tangi were a part of daily life. One moment you were outside playing with your friends and whānau and the next you heard the car horns tooting from about a kilometre away. That was the signal to the home people that the manuhiri were nearly there. It was an eerie feeling. Once you knew what was going on and what the sound of the horns ringing down the valley of Pawarenga meant, you almost started to cry automatically. Even today when I take bodies up north from Auckland, as we draw near home we start tooting. (15).
A lot of what Francis draws upon in his daily work comes from those times spent at tangihanga as a child. It seems like he ended up in the right career.
The basic protocol of a Māori funeral involves the body lying in an open casket for several days. This is traditionally on the marae “back home”, where the person’s tribe (iwi or hapū) or whānau (extended family) originally comes from. Family or friends - traditionally women - sit around the deceased. They weep loudly and carry pictures of them, their heads wreathed with kawakawa.
The deceased is never left alone. When people go to eat, someone stays with them. People sleep around them at night. It’s also not uncommon to touch them, for example to hongi, kiss, or hold hands.
Hundreds of people can show up at these funerals and as such they can also become an occasion to settle family business. People may arrive to express frustration or anger at the deceased - somewhat paradoxically, this is a way of acknowledging the stature of the person in life. If you’re a somebody, you made a mark on the world. If you’re a nobody, you didn’t.
People who didn’t like the dead person will still show up to pay their respects or say, ‘You were a mongrel - remember when you were young and you stole this or did that and I’ll never forgive you and I hope you go to hell.’ Sometimes they praise and condemn the person in the same kōrero… But following some sharp words at a tangi, words of love and comfort will come and, because of what went before, they will be so deep and meaningful that they move you to tears. (234-5).
That’s the theory, anyway. It may seem disrespectful, but the point is to acknowledge - truthfully - the impact of the dead upon the living. That is a simple recognition of the mana of their deeds, good or bad.
Self-control is needed, though, or resentment boils over into hatred, into a final revenge of the living upon the dead. I still think about Saddam Hussein’s execution, for example, a completely tactless affair in which he was heckled and abused till the end. There are even rumours his corpse was mutilated further.
A lot of people simply don’t care because he was a dictator, but that kind of treatment of the dead has always disgusted me. How is there any dignity in it? If you can’t wish your enemies a good death without gloating at their end, how can you possibly move on with your own life? This is a coarsening of sensibilities, a failure to recognise other people - even your worst enemies - as humans like yourself. You have to allow things to come to their end, and finish them on a tone of love or conciliation or solemnity. Without that, you cannot move forward.
So I have mixed feelings about this kind of direct frustration towards the dead. This kind of confrontation easily spirals out of control in these stormy gatherings of big families.
I have an example from my own life. In the memory I am standing between two very angry family members who are yelling. They are perhaps seconds away from throwing punches—the precise details have faded with time, leaving the whole thing an unhappy blur in my childhood.
Heoi anō. We simply have to remember that funerals serve both the living and the dead. If we fixate on the squabbles of the living, we neglect to honour the dead.
Contact with the dead makes one inviolable - tapu. The funeral therefore ends with a big meal. Food being profane, the act of eating renders its participants noa, so they may safely interact with the rest of the world again. To violate this is to invite disaster upon yourself.
Francis relates an interesting story about this, in which he had a confrontation with his whānau about an overgrown plot of land in the family cemetery. Francis wanted to clean it up, but the location was considered tapu; it was said those who had disturbed the plot in the past had suddenly died.
Having seen many people grieve, Francis has a lot of observations on how the cultures are different. Pākehā funerals tend to be more formal and stoic, with a much clearer idea of what happens when. They are also more predictable customers: they always pay on time, always show up on time, and they always collect the ashes of their deceased!
Like in Māori funerals, eating together is an important part of Samoan funerals. However, this is done in the same room as the deceased - a big no-no in tikanga.
I would liken Māori funerals to a purging of emotions. The word for funeral comes from the word tangi, which means to wail, to cry, to make a noise - the noise in question not just being crying, but the loud wailing traditionally made by women for the dead.
There’s also singing and laughing. The tangihanga lasts several days, so it’s not as though you’re going to be crying that whole time. Sometimes it’s more like you’re hanging out with the dead. You share stories, you think about the good old days, you reminisce. This full range of emotional expression around the dead is perfectly normal.
Modern reality complicates these traditions. It’s probably safe to say there’s no such a thing as a purely Māori funeral or a purely Pākehā funeral anymore. Everyone has influenced everyone else, especially as different ethnic and religious groups have inter-married. Francis himself is both Māori and Tongan, was born Catholic, and later converted to his wife’s Mormon faith. The funeral customs have blended together over time:
Once, funeral homes held bodies in ‘slumber rooms’, where family could come to visit for half an hour or so before the funeral. Now we have rooms where family members can stay over with their relatives, and many do. We provide mattresses on the floor and people bring their own bedding. On the other hand, more and more Pākehā families are taking their relatives home where they can all be together for one last time. That’s an example of tikanga influencing Pākehā culture. It’s beautiful that both cultures are influencing each other to honour their dead. (246).
The exchange of culture was exacerbated by the mass urbanisation of Māori in the 20th century. In the decades before World War II it is estimated that 90% of Māori lived in rural areas. By 1970, 80% lived in the cities.
And this exchange wasn’t symmetric. Mass urbanisation came with a big loss of knowledge. Many people want to observe the old traditions - they just don’t know how. In the past, the elders were the guardians of this knowledge, but due to the massive dislocation of Māori from the homes of their culture within a few decades, there was a generation to whom it was not passed on.
That’s part of what makes this book so exciting. In an increasingly globalised world, the products of all cultures are on offer to everyone - you need only make a consumer decision as to which ones are “you”. “Customs” become mere “habits” or “hobbies”; “culture” is seen as something belonging to the past, or to secretive immigrant families yet to surrender to modernity.
This view of culture is devastating to the world’s beauty and diversity. And this book proves it fallacious. It is possible to navigate a different course through life, one which acknowledges a deeper source of meaning than Spotify, Netflix, and videogames. It does not emulate the past in empty gestures, but adjusts the customs of old to the circumstances of new. This is a position which neither denies the future nor forgets the past, but marries both in a happy present.
I watched a few episodes of The Casketeers and it wasn’t for me. But I do highly recommend Life as a Casketeer. It's a more personal, serious look at Tipene Funerals, with a fascinating comparison of customs and cultures, driven by a lot of thought-provoking stories from Francis from his childhood and his time in business. There are less interesting bits too, but the good ultimately outshines the boring. Life as a Casketeer is a heart-warming case for love and family; by exposing the grisly business of death, it ultimately makes the case for life.
These figures from Tangata Whenua - An Illustrated History by Atholl Anderson, Judith Binney, and Aroha Harris. Bridget Williams Books, Wellington, 2015. p. 434. As cited in Urban Māori: The Second Great Migration by Bradford Haami. Published for Te Whānau of Waipareira Trust by Oratia Books, Oratia Media, Auckland, 2018. p. 9. See also Ka Whawhai Tonu Mātou by Ranginui Walker. Penguin Books NZ, Auckland, 1990, p. 196-7.