Francis Tipene stars in new TV1 documentary series about funeral directors - The Casketeers.
1 What was it liked being filmed on the job by a TV crew?

The hardest part was finding the courage to ask the families for permission to be filmed. I had to go up to the father of Chozyn Koroheke, a young mum who was shot in Pakuranga, and say, "We're filming a show about what we do in the funeral home, just to open the doors up to people about the process. Would your family be willing to being filmed?"

He grabbed my hand, man to man, and said, "If it's going to help other people - yes". I cried. They were such a beautiful family, allowing us to share such an intimate time. We took her body home without a casket to enable her children to cuddle her. The camera crew were very discreet.

2 Do you ever get emotional on the job?

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We try not to get emotionally involved but there are cases where it does affect you. When a mother who's lost her son falls on the casket crying it just pierces your heart. Often it's the song that will do it.

You're fine until you start singing. It helps to prepare mentally for homicides, suicides or young people where you know there's going to be a lot of raw emotion.

3 How did you get into the funeral directing business?

My wife Kaiora and I were working as teachers for our iwi, Te Rarawa, when I suggested we use our knowledge of tikanga Maori to open our own funeral home. She was like, "No way!"

There aren't many Maori funeral directors because everything's so tapu or sacred, you're scared of doing something wrong. In the old days the kuia would cleanse the body down at the creek with kawakawa leaves.

That knowledge would be handed down. Getting a job at a funeral home was very hard, it's such a closed industry. My first job was at a funeral home in Papatoetoe that had the police contract to pick up all the sudden deaths and take them to the coroner.

So at 22, I was walking along a train track picking up body parts and putting them in a bag thinking, "Is this actually what I want to do?" Once I got through the first few months of that I could handle anything.

4 How did you learn to embalm?

I was taught by a very skilled embalmer at Nga Hau e Wha in Panmure. You don't have to be qualified to embalm but it may soon be regulated.

There are courses where you can learn to reconstruct faces but most of the time you just improvise using wax, cotton wool, tin foil and number 8 wire. I've cut up an ice cream container to mold a skull for someone who had been shot in the head because you can't just buy a skull anywhere.

It's worth when you show the family and they're so grateful that it's not half a head.

5 Is it common to have an open casket at funerals?

Only about five percent are open casket. It's so uncommon you need to sign a consent form at some cemeteries. More people are wanting to take the body home in recent times.

We have a special dressing room which we fought the council for permission to open about five years ago. It looks just like a bedroom, rather than a cold steel mortuary, where families can dress their loved ones as they lie in bed under the privacy of sheets.

As long as it has lino floors and everything's sanitised it meets the regulations.

6 What are the main differences between Maori and Pakeha funerals or tangihanga?

Maori are taught not to leave the body's side, from the time of death right through the whole process. For health and safety reasons, families aren't allowed in the mortuary during the embalming process, so they'll be right outside the door.

We're given a window of two to three hours to do the embalming, so the pressure's on. Given the proper timeframe of 12 hours, bodies can remain supple and soft but with our Maori families we have to 'hit it hard' with undiluted chemicals because the bodies often have to travel for hours to rural marae heated by hundreds of people which can be a recipe for disaster.

Funeral director Francis Tipene from Tipene Funerals in Onehunga. Photo / Dean Purcell
Funeral director Francis Tipene from Tipene Funerals in Onehunga. Photo / Dean Purcell

7 Do you notice the cultures grieve differently?

Yes. Lots of things come out when I'm in the hearse with the family. There's a saying; 'What goes on in the hearse stays in the hearse'.

Pakeha families will often say, "I'm a mess, I need my sunglasses" which I find weird because we take our sunglasses off inside so we can see eye to eye when we talk or they'll say, "I better not be a cry baby today". I can appreciate that stiff upper lip approach is how people were brought up but I don't think it's helpful. You should be able to cry if and when you need to.

In Maori we have a saying, 'Tangihia te Tangi' or 'cry the cry' – whatever that may be. It's going to be a generational change, I think.

8 Do you ever see disagreements about where the body's going to go?

It's very common, particularly in Maori families. We'll get everyone around a table to talk. People often get caught up in what the deceased would have wanted. I get that, but this person has passed away.

We need to think about those still living, their children or mokopuna, and what is going to make their lives a little easier. For Maori, we believe the wairua or spirit of the person has gone and the tupapaku or body is just an empty shell. Once people take a deep breath and a step back from their grief it usually comes right.

9 Does religion play a big role in funerals these days?

About 60 per cent are still religious but the trend with the new generation coming through is to have a more open service; so a prayer at the beginning and end but an open floor in the middle to share stories and songs.

10 How did you handle sudden infant death cases when you dealt with them four years ago?
Removing the baby from the house is getting a little easier because mums can now come to the mortuary. I let mum hold baby in the car; I don't know if that's the law but I've done it and the cops didn't say anything. [Editor's note: The Ministry of Justice advises this is not allowed by law.]

Then I say, "Okay it's time to take pepe for an examination and he'll be reunited with you real quick." Unfortunately it does take time – sometimes days. Babies often have to be flown to Wellington because their post mortems are so specialised.

11 How long does a post-mortem typically take?

In my opinion, it used to be much quicker. That's a budget issue at government level. Five years ago if you took a body in today you'd have it back by 9am tomorrow which was great because we'd have them ready to go onto the marae at 5pm.

Now they're not being released until around 5pm which means you're often not getting to the marae until the early hours of the morning and the full welcome has to be done then. It's something we can work on now we've got a Maori deputy chief coroner, Brandt Shortland.

12 What's your favourite part of the job?

Taking a body onto the marae and seeing my culture in full force. My love for the job was reignited recently when we took Damon Heke, a young community leader taken too young by cancer, onto Manurewa Marae.

It was a welcome fit for a king. The haka was so strong you could feel the vibrations going through your body. This is the beautiful side to our culture that I wish others were able to see and be part of.

The Casketeers starts this Saturday 13 January on TVNZ 1 and TVNZ OnDemand.