In Ghana, fantasy coffins are in vogue. Fish, shoes, airplanes, trucks, mobile phones, cameras, a grand piano, even The Bible. All of these objects have been crafted into functional coffins.
They are not cheap and for many locals, a fantasy coffin requires a lifetime of saving.
Boxes with proverbs
The fantasy coffins are used by the Ga people of Ghana. They were once the exclusive domain of chiefs and priests, but during the 1950’s went mainstream. By the 1960’s they had become an integral part of the local funeral culture.
The coffins are locally referred to as ‘Abebuu adekai’, which translates as ‘boxes with proverbs’.
Each coffin is chosen to symbolise some aspect of the dead person’s life, be it their clan or profession in life. A crab represents a clan totem, a Coca Cola bottle represents a street vendor, a cocoa pod a cocoa farmer. Some symbols can only be used by people with appropriate status, like royal or religious people.
Some coffins are purely aspirational. A Mercedes Benz for the successful businessman or an airplane for the person that wanted to fly but never got the opportunity in life.
Only one fantasy coffin is permitted inside a church. The Bible.
Kane Kwei Workshop
The Kane Kwei Carpentry Workshop in Accra, is one of ten carpenters’ workshops operating in Teshie, on the outskirts of Accra, the capital. Their list of fantasy coffins is mind boggling and at times bizarre – a 9mm bullet, cigarette packet, condom sachet, lego brick, remote control, tank, bag of flour.
The caskets are all hand made. They take 2-6 weeks to produce and are generally made from the wood of the local waa-waa tree. The paint is applied a few days before the funeral to ensure that the colours stay bright.
Fantasy coffins are only seen on the day of the funeral – to see the coffin before then is considered bad luck. During a Ga funeral the coffin will travel a chaotic route to ensure the spirit travels away from family and friends, and will not come back to haunt them.
To understand the fantasy coffins, you have to understand the local funeral culture.
In Ghana, the weekend is for funerals. Billboards adorn the roadside advertising the funeral details in advance. Everyone is welcome as it is important to attract the maximum number of mourners. This may include distant relatives, acquaintances, and sometimes complete strangers.
Mourners don their finest black clothes, enjoy free food and drinks, mingle, catch up and court each other. The biggest parties and the best socialising is at funerals. All this revelry comes at a price and although the community will contribute to the family, the cost can exceed that of a wedding!
Larger than life
Last year, I travelled to Accra. We visited one of the fantasy coffin workshops. There, larger than life, sat a cocoa pod, fish, crab, projector, Coke bottle....
Back home coffins are a regulation rectangle shape. You can choose different materials to craft the coffin (timber, composite board, metal, cardboard) but on the whole the colours and shapes remain uniform. Here, the entire notion of a coffin had been redefined and conversely, the material was uniform (wood from the local waawaa tree) but the colours and shapes were not. They were colourful, sculptural, and quite beautiful. Each was a work of art.
Form over function
Not all fantasy coffins end up buried underground.
They came to international attention in the 1970’s when a number of coffins were purchased by an LA Gallery. In 1989, the Pompidou Centre in Paris held an exhibition of coffins and then in 1992, the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
The quality of these exhibition pieces is very high. They are made from more durable timber, like African mahogany, and can take many months to finish.
Today the coffins are regularly exhibited around the world and many are held in private and public collections, including this Eagle Coffin which was purchased by the British Museum.
Paa Joe and the lion
Paa Joe is the grandfather of the fantasy coffin trade. He has worked in the industry for close to 50 years and in addition to supplying the local funeral market he produces coffins for the international art market.
He has exhibited his work in the UK, Japan, Korea, Australia, Canada, Italy, France, USA, Denmark, Germany, Holland and Switzerland. Curiously he has only exhibited in a handful of African nations.
He is the subject of an Artdoc feature length documentary due for release next year.
Paa Joe & The Lion looks at an artist at work, the highs and lows of being an artisan and keeping traditions alive. It also documents the fascinating Ga culture and examines how we look at life and death both in Ghana and around the world - Artdoc
During the filming Paa Joe's mother passed away, aged 107, leaving him to organise her funeral and to carve her coffin.
Can you dig it?
There’s no denying that Ghana's fantasy coffins offer the deceased a grand farewell. Over the years, they have supplied many overseas buyers, including Jimmy Carter, who purchased two coffins in 1989.
If you too would like to shuffle off this mortal coil in style then head to the artisans of Teshie. If you can't get to Accra, you are in luck. The fantasy coffins are available online at the eShopAfrica Fair Trade site. Or you can try eBay - I recently spotted this Airstream Trailer listed for a cool USD$3,000!