Death/Care in The Casketeers

Curator's Note

The Casketeers, a Television New Zealand (TVNZ) original reality series, debuted in January 2018 and was picked up by Netflix eleven months later. Set within Tipene Funeral Home, our protagonists are Francis and Kaiora Tipene, who own and operate the business. Casketeers is a recent success for Te Māngai Pāho, a body tasked with the promotion of Māori culture within New Zealand. This cultural specificity is alluded to in several Netflix promotional images, some of which feature Pacific Islander tribal design elements, while the header I’ve chosen features the Tipenes affecting expressions typical of the haka dances often featured in the show’s funeral ceremonies. 

From the outset, Francis is depicted as detail-obsessed, particularly when it comes to the appearance of the funeral home. His wife and coworkers often appear in talking head shots, lovingly eye-rolling as he blows leaves out of the parking lot multiple times a day. What is notable in watching The Casketeers is how this attentiveness to detail, played for comedy when Francis is excising every dropped piece of gum from the sidewalk, is carried over into the series’ depiction of funereal care practices. 

Here, the pizzicato score that reality TV so often uses to signal onscreen silliness to the audience drops away, and the visual language of the series lapses into a series of extreme close-ups. Hands and arms, maneuvering the deceased into clothing, then lifting them into a casket. Hair being gently brushed and positioned. A small sachet of lavender given by a family member being tucked into clothing prior to a viewing.  

Granted, these choices are likely made equally to preserve the privacy of the decedents and their loved ones, but the level of detail present in these sequences is striking when compared to something like Netflix’s similar original reality series, Buried By the Bernards, which keeps actual funereal work largely in the background. Francis’ self-characterization as “a bit OCD” works in creating an impression of overwhelming care and attentiveness to those he serves, while at the same time providing the comic fodder the series uses to lighten the mood for its viewership.

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