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Maori couple a Netflix hit

A Maori couple in New Zealand who felt drawn in their early 20s to start their own funeral business in the capital Auckland have become unlikely Netflix stars.

Aged just 21, Francis and Kaiora Tipene moved from Kaitaia in rural Northland to the capital city with their one-year-old baby in tow, convinced that death could be done better.

It soon became clear the couple’s passion for the work was not just enthusiasm but something they were able to sustain and turn into a thriving business, despite Kaiora’s early misgivings.

“I was very hesitant, I used to make him leave his work clothes in the garage before he came into the house,” she told The Guardian. “I was scared, scared of helping him.”

And things have certainly moved on now.

“I started talking to the bodies while I was working with them, having little chats,” she continued. “That’s how I was able to overcome the whole morbid feeling … it passed and like Francis, this has become my passion.”

It took three years of gentle persuasion from their friend and TV producer Annabelle Lee-Mather, before the couple agreed to film a documentary on their working lives called The Casketeers. It was picked up by Netflix and the first season, described as “tasteful, moving, candid and hilarious”, saw the Tipenes turned into New Zealand celebrities, recognised everywhere across the country.

The show has benefited from funding by Te Mangai Paho, an indigenous funding body tasked with promoting Maori language and culture. There are subtitles used when Te reo is spoken, Maori grief practices such as open caskets, sleeping with the body and fiery send-offs on tribal meeting grounds (marae) are featured, with the couple performing spiritual rituals when requested.

Kaiora says she was motivated by the opportunity to break down taboos surrounding death and funerals, and to introduce viewers to the more humorous side.

Producer Lee-Mather says the series has broken new ground: “The show is taking the taboo of death away, and making it less frightening and less scary. It has given people an opportunity to talk with their families, ask questions and get a better understanding of it. It is the only thing we all know with certainty – we’re all going to die.”

This is a preview of a feature article.

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