The Exit Interview: Undertaker Francis Tipene, on leaving this life
Why do you do this work?
I love the fact that we are able to help guide someone through their journey of loss and be part of those final moments when they say farewell to a physical body. It is so gratifying and satisfying. It's uplifting. When you are putting someone down, you are uplifted. It is stressful, absolutely; it comes with all the drama. Grief brings out the best and worst in people but ultimately it's not about the burial or the cremation, it's about that little journey that we need to take and I love guiding families through the experience of grief and loss.
What part do you find the hardest?
Probably the arrangements, when I am sitting down making decisions with the living and the dynamic that comes with it, making sure everyone is in agreement, having to appease all the family members, finding a date. It can be smooth, it can be pretty straightforward or it can lead to arguments, it can lead to fights. Anything to do with the dead body is easy - dressing the body, embalming the body, moving the body.
We are weird about death - we tend to pretend it won't happen to us. What is your own attitude?
Look, I have no problem talking about anyone else's funeral but when it comes to my own, I don't want to talk about it. It's funny, isn't it? Here I am preaching to everyone, saying, "Prepare yourself" but I don't want to have that discussion. I don't know what my problem is. When we get new caskets, my wife says, "Oh honey, I love this one, I would like this one" - and I will change the subject. I find it very difficult and I find it very sad. There is one thing I do know, I want to be put in a mausoleum. I don't want to be put in the ground and I don't want to be put in the fire. Māori used to put the body out in the bush to let nature take its course and I would like that - just put me on a tree. I wouldn't have to be embalmed, I wouldn't have to be in a casket, I wouldn't have to be enclosed. It would be so natural with the birds and the bees and the flies and whatever and, after a year or so your bones are dry and ready to go. I love that idea but the world is not ready for that. A mausoleum will do.
You didn't grow in a family of funeral directors. What was your attitude towards death as a child?
We went to so many funerals growing up Māori. We are a big family and not very healthy, there was always someone dying, every week. We would be attending so many funerals, sleeping at so many marae, next to so many dead bodies that it was normal to us, so it was a natural progression for me to follow this path. The only thing with being Māori back then was that everything to do with the body was so sacred and tapu and so [the custom was to] leave the preparation of the body to a Pākehā so we don't have to worry about that. It was quite taboo when I wanted to be a funeral director. 'What?! Change the subject!' Now we have evolved a little bit.
You and your staff chat to the bodies as you work. Why do you do that?
That is for our own sanity. It reminds us that this person is still here spiritually and keeps us in check. Sometimes we will have embalming problems with the body and so we have a chat. "Come on mate, what's up? Let us know what we're doing wrong. Is something happening at home, are you not happy, have we got the wrong pair of undies on you?" We just talk about it and then eventually it all comes around. We might take the new socks off and put the old ugly holey socks on and things just happen beautifully. It might be that we are getting fluid leaking from the mouth or some other orifice of the body and we have done everything we need to do scientifically and it's still [an issue]. And we will say, "Come on, whaea, come on mātua, everyone is waiting for you at home. You need to be good so we can get you home to all your grandchildren." Then things take a turn. So that helps with our sanity and it keeps a line of communication open with the person - and thankfully they don't reply.
Life as a Casketeer: What the Business of Death Can Teach the Living by Francis and Kaiora Tipene (HarperCollins, $40) is out this month.