With a table overlooking Queenstown's spectacular Lake Wakatipu and the log fire roaring, it couldn't have been a more romantic dinner setting. Well, it would have been, only Francis Tipene – one half of TV's popular show The Casketeers – was sitting alone with a film crew nearby, while other diners who recognised him came over to ask, "Where's your wife?"
"She's left me and gone back to Auckland," he replied, before revealing his beloved Kaiora had to unexpectedly head home after her aunt died while the family were on a week-long holiday.
"After the most challenging year dealing with the Covid restrictions on funerals, I'd booked a romantic date at Botswana Butchery just for her and I," Francis says.
"Lockdown pushed everything back, so the TV crew ended up coming on holiday with us to film and told me to go to dinner by myself. I was like, 'No, I'll look stupid', but they paid for dinner, so I went and the food was amazing. I knew she would have loved it."
With five children and three branches of their booming funeral business to oversee, date nights are a rarity for this Auckland couple, so they try to snatch alone time whenever they can – even if it's just parking up the hearse to eat McDonald's in a cemetery!
"I really appreciated that time, actually, because we were coming back from a tangi and I was so hungry," Kaiora says.
"Francis doesn't like taking the hearse through the drive-thru, so he made me go in and order, but he said he'd find us a lovely picnic spot to stop and eat it.
"As we were driving around, I realised we were at Waikumete Cemetery and thought, 'Are you for real?'
"He likes to say, 'Ooh babe, we're having a moment'. I'm like, 'Are we?! What moment are you referring to?' and he'll say, 'You know, we're having a date!'
"He's a lot of fun, so cheeky and definitely more needy than all my kids put together. He also knows if he sings a particular song to me [Don't Let Go by Spawnbreezie], he can get away with anything."
As fun-loving Francis and Kaiora, who are both 37, welcome the Weekly into their picturesque villa, they sip on takeaway coffees ("it's better to bring her a mocha than have a bad morning," quips Francis) and explain it's been a hectic week. They've just learned a close friend died after a long illness, there's a cousin's funeral to prepare the next day and two nights previously, Francis was bitten on the leg by a dog. The incident happened while he was transferring a loved one's body back to the family. "I was going up the front steps holding one end of the casket, when the dog, who was pining for its master, latched onto me," he says.
"He came back and said, 'I'm going to need a new suit,'" Kaiora says. "I was like, 'Don't be dramatic. You only need new pants, not a whole suit.'"
With the couple's hit show currently back on our screens, they say this season portrays more of their children, Nikora, 15, Moronai, 13, Mikae, 7, Mihaka, 6, and Francis Jr, 2, than previously. Of all their children, only Mikae is showing signs of following in his parents' footsteps. "He loves tradition and is mindful of ceremonial rituals. He used to sometimes play 'funerals' and once the school rang us up and said, 'Your son's drawing coffins!' We had to explain that we're funeral directors."
The family dynamic has changed now there are two teenagers in the mix. "When I drop them off at college, they tell me to 'Just park up the top' where no one can see them get out of the van. I say, 'Bye son, love you!' and all you hear back is, 'Okay – go, go, go.'"
Seeing a lot of rangatahi [young people] who have died from suicide coming through their funeral home, the couple are reminded to tread carefully with their teens. "I've been doing this job for 17 years and they [suicide victims] just get younger and younger," says Francis. "When a mother comes in grieving a child who's taken their own life, her cry is so haunting.
"It's a warning to parents to have those catch-ups with your kids. We always say, 'I love you' to our sons – that's important. And we don't expect them to say it back, but we hope they know they're loved.
"We can't read their minds," he continues. "We hope to God they talk to us about what they're feeling. There's a Kiwi culture of men being all macho, but I think it's time to keep talking. Growing up in my family, it wasn't normal to share your feelings or say, 'I love you', so we're breaking that.
"If my wife and I cry watching a movie, the kids will ask, 'Why are you crying?' and we'll say, 'Because it was beautiful' and just let it be, so that they feel comfortable around people showing their emotions. I don't want them to feel like you have to hide your tears."
"Or sometimes if I cry in front of them, they'll say, 'Oh, Mum, have you had a big day?' and I'll say, 'I have'," says Kaiora. "They understand the line of work we're in."
The TV sweethearts celebrate their 17th wedding anniversary in May and it's clear the hilarious banter they share on screen – whether it's watching Francis drool over a Tesla hearse or playing detective over who's been stealing the office mints – is also a regular fixture at home.
However, they're coming out of one of the most difficult times in their relationship, when Kaiora developed post-natal depression following the birth of their youngest son in 2019.
"Until we got it diagnosed, I was like, 'What's wrong? Are you hungry?' I just didn't know," Francis says. "Normally you're able to fix things, but that one I couldn't. You think it's someone's fault, but it wasn't."
Kaiora admits she was also in denial over how much she was really struggling. "I wasn't like this at all with my other boys," she tells. "I was really confused at the time, wondering, 'Why am I being like this? C'mon, get it together.' I believed that karakia [prayer] or my own self-will would help me get through. You know us mums, we get up and have to keep going. It was hard to accept that I needed help."
It wasn't until Kaiora had a conversation with her sister, who'd noticed the signs of depression and gently suggested Kaiora take some time off, that she decided to visit her GP. "And I cried because someone that I love very much thought I needed help, and although I didn't really want to hear it, I took it seriously."
Once they had a diagnosis, they were able to put in place a plan to help. Kaiora sought professional help in the form of counselling – something she'd tried to avoid and kept secret at the time but is now proud of. She's happy to let people know she needed it.
"I'd never seen a counsellor before, even as supervision for my own work dealing with other people's grief. So when I was sitting in that counsellor's room, it was a really big deal for me. She asked, 'How are you?' and I started to cry and said, 'Actually, I really don't know.' I realised it was a safe place to vent.
"Things got easier and I'm doing much better than I was. It takes time to heal. I don't go to therapy much any more, but it's good to know my counsellor's there. I'm now leaning more on my family."
With Francis making it known that he'd still love to try for a little girl, Kaiora admits she has a slight fear that if she were to be pregnant again, the depression might return.
"But at least I know what to expect," she says. "I'm so grateful to be a mum. I love children, I love carrying for nine months and I even love the wake-ups at night. I'm so blessed to have five boys and if I was to have another boy, I'd love my rugby team."
What she's learned through her recent struggles is that having me-time is important, "whether that's having a cuppa alone in the morning or a 10-minute walk between dropping my kids off in the morning before I'm bombarded with more kids again – my staff!" she laughs.