Why Kaiora Tipene says more Pākehā are adopting Māori tikanga for their funerals

Kaiora Tipene wearing white top and laughing while hugging husband Francis

“We don’t mind at all if Pākehā follow our rituals,” says Casketeers star Kaiora Tipene who has seen more funerals adopting Māori tikanga.

We’re really pleased that our fourth season of The Casketeers is playing on TVNZ at the moment. Working with a television production company has become easier for us as the seasons have gone by, but you still have to be on your game because all eyes are on you, especially the funeral industry.

When our first season was about to go to air in 2018, we had a phone call from someone from the Funeral Directors Association of New Zealand (FDANZ) about two hours before it screened. They were questioning our tikanga, because they’d seen a trailer where Francis talks about using a plastic ice-cream container.

“How is that going to sit with your people,” they said. “Because food and the dead don’t go very well, do they?” We were so shocked because, quite frankly, there’s no one better than us to demonstrate tikanga on behalf of our industry. I love being who I am, and that is Māori.”

The FDANZ have some awesome members and the board are all lovely people who have done their best to get us to be part of the association, but we prefer to have our own standards.

Since then the FDANZ have come back and asked us for guidance about kaupapa Māori and it’s awesome that they can come to us for those things. We were invited to speak at their conference last year and we were the first Māori to be keynote speakers. Later we were told it was because there was a big pool of people from Australia at the conference and they had seen our show and asked if we could talk. They wanted to know how to incorporate a culture such as their Aboriginal culture into daily funeral directing tasks. We’ve had an awesome response to the show from our colleagues across the Tasman.

Being on TV has taken some getting used to. Watching myself is annoying, but not as annoying as it is for Francis, who is obsessed with things being right. “Why is that sheet sitting like that – it should have been straight!” We are our own worst critics.

The best part about The Casketeers has been the response from people who are in love with our culture. There have been a lot of non-Māori who want to adopt it and that’s so beautiful. In this season we work with one whānau who are Pākehā but wanted to do their funeral our way. I went around to their home where the deceased was lying and they had put photos up on the wall above the head as we do.

“Have we done this right?” they asked me. “We just wanted all of their tūpuna present.”

And I thought, “Oh my goodness they used the word tūpuna, how beautiful is that?”

We don’t mind at all if Pākehā follow our rituals. If someone is willing and showing wholeheartedly that they love our culture then I’m going to accept that and teach them.

Francis can be a bit straightforward though. He was taking a Pākehā couple onto his marae for a tangi, and said to them, “This is like walking down the wedding aisle, but this is the death aisle.” I wasn’t quite sure that was a great way to say that.

We don’t see the show before it goes to air, so we need to have quite a lot of trust in the crew who put it together, but we have that. Still, we’re always a little anxious when we sit down to watch it on the first night.

Kia heke iho rā i ngā tūpuna, kātahi ka tika – Should it be a practice handed down by our forefathers, then it would be correct.

Kaiora Tipene works with her husband, Francis, as a funeral director. Their humour and knowledge of tikanga is featured in their Netflix show, The Casketeers.

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