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Matters of life and death... rhubarb pie and leaf blowers


STREAMING: The Casketeers could easily be buried among the myriad binge-worthy shows on Netflix, but this Kiwi series about a Māori funeral home is charming, heartwarming and for a doco about death surprisingly funny.

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There’s something about Francis.

On one hand, the funeral director is exactly the kind of compassionate perfectionist we might all want to direct our own final rites. But he’s also such a quirky, made-for-TV character that it takes a while to dawn that The Casketeers is actually a documentary, not a mockumentary.

By then, you’re hooked.

Named best reality series at the NZTV awards and picked up earlier this year by Netflix, the show centres on Auckland’s Tipene Funerals, a Māori funeral home overseen by fastidious Francis Tipene, who in turn is overseen by his wife and business partner Kaiora.

Viewers get an insight into the grieving rituals of Māori and Pacific Islander communities, from a heart-wrenching karakia (prayer) sung graveside as a baby’s coffin is lowered into the ground on a rainy day, to a father keeping silent vigil alongside the body of his murdered daughter in their home, to a huge formal tangi – complete with formidable haka – at the Waahi Paa for the sister of the Māori King.

Raw emotion is inevitable, but it’s offset by the good humour of Tipene Funerals’ staff and Francis’s quirks and droll delivery, with the team often breaking into te reo Māori (language) as they go about their business.

One episode in the first series sees the employees summonsed for an “interrogation” during which Francis is determined to find out who has had their hand – literally – in the cookie jar. Other outings see him scoffing rhubarb pie before a personal training session in the chapel (see below), buying a beat-up manual van for an employee who can’t drive a manual, and trying to convince the more prudent Kaiora that he needs an expensive, strap-on leaf blower to deal with the half dozen leaves in the funeral home carpark.

It’s fly-on-the-wall stuff and quintessentially Kiwi: authentic and empathetic, heartrending and heartwarming, always respectful yet occasionally outright hilarious.

The Casketeers was described by New Zealand’s public radio station as “an unexpected runaway success”, and while its uptake by Netflix means Australians also get to binge on the show, the family has apparently remained relatively unfazed by the broader exposure, with The Guardian quoting Kaiora Tipene as saying:

“It’s just Netflix, eh? We’re not much into all that stuff.”

Series one and two of The Casketeers is currently streaming on Netflix.

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