A beautiful story woven around difficult subjects, Eleanor Bassett
September 29, 2021
I picked up Life as a Casketeer and started reading at the end of Te Wiki o te Reo Māori 2021. It seemed like fate, and fitting, to start a non-fiction book that integrates the themes and values of language and cultural preservation through familial and cultural generations.
Like people afraid of heights that seek out and ride a roller coaster; as someone who is afraid of dying, I was morbidly curious to read this. Early on, Francis reveals that Kaiora was apprehensive and initially less than enthused about their new professions. It would have been so interesting to hear more about how Kaiora worked through that, especially as a reader who identifies with that apprehension and anxiety.
Kaiora’s professional development may have been explored and explained more in the TV show, in her own words (most of this book is written by Francis). To be upfront, I have never seen The Casketeers show. Probably because the storytelling mediums are so different and engage so differently, I personally found it less confronting to read the book. Non-fiction books written as literary progressions of shows can lose potential readers who didn’t watch the show, and can be written as a script continuation of the show (making it harder to pick up if you didn’t watch).
Although Francis and Kaiora’s personal stories and personalities probably come thorough more on the show, I appreciated the developed and through descriptions of cultural funeral and mourning practices. In a way, their decision not to focus on too heavily on their personal growth or relationship story serves as an act of love and respect, and ‘walking the talk’ of the values and themes that their book discusses around their business. I felt full body chills at the description of Far North tangi and the cars driving home. Part of this description is preservation; short and long term. In the short term, the concept of three monthly hui (for the purpose of discussing and auditing death finance and planning) was confronting for a Pākehā reader, but food for thought none the less: how much of the ability to continue cultural traditions in a modern world is language and cultural knowledge, and how much is having strategies in place to maintain the monetary ability as an iwi to do it?
An interesting point that didn’t come up often, but this might just be the first New Zealand non-fiction book to address it at all, is the future of death. Indirectly, the preservation of cultural traditions around death and mourning contribute to the future of mourning and death within a culture also. Francis points out how the death wishes and decisions affect the living (for example, burial means less available land for other things). This is particularly interesting through a different cultural lenses, as the ‘future of death’ for many Pākehā funeral industry occupiers the future of death is purely an environmental concern; not a joint environmental and cultural consideration (how the culture interacts with the environment, and vice versa).
Throughout the book, the Tipenes emphasise that funerals are for the living not the dead. This is reflected in the book’s style and choices; the book forgoes distasteful death stories, or retelling the TV show, for a narrative on the choices and values of the living, and how that impacts death and its industry. Ultimately this book was not about death (a great realisation for someone who doesn’t enjoy thinking too hard about it), but actually what a good funeral, memorial and related customs (and their preservation) looked like. Narratively, I understand why Francis and Kaiora chose to write about their early years and how it shaped them; but that growth story wasn’t my overall takeaway. It might be for you though!
Contrary to their job as funeral directors, this book did not let me down (get it? Cemetery puns….) This is a book well worth reading in a couple of sittings! In the blurb on the back of the book, it describes Life as a Casketeer as a “love story – for whānau, for culture and for each other.” That is a beautiful synopsis really of all the threads woven with care around topics that can be taboo and hard to write about.
Eleanor Bassett is 19, and lives in Upper Hutt. When she isn’t attempting to be Dr. Dolitte, or the next Pippa Funnell or Molly Huddle; she pores over and overanalyses all forms of literary and media!