Going Out in Style! Ghana’s Fantasy Coffins

Funerals are painful, solemn affairs, and are often so intrinsically tied to tradition and familial expectation that the service often becomes painfully impersonal. From hymns at a funeral of an atheist to the wrong flowers on a grandmother’s coffin, it can be a difficult task to reflect the personality and the interests of the deceased at such an occasion. Several undertakers and funeral homes have, in recent years, offered a range of printed coffins, with high-resolution images of landscapes and football club colours to the bereaved. While the small steps that images, cardboard and colourful coffins present, they’re little more than a subtle nod to the vibrancy of the deceased.

However, the fantasy coffins of Ghana are anything but subtle.

[Photo – Alamy]

Otherwise known as fantasy, figurative or proverbial coffins (abebuu adekai), these unusual creations become transient memorials, in elaborate representations of the deceased’s interests, dreams and achievements. Often huge and unwieldy, these bespoke coffins are an art form in themselves. Frequently made in forms that evoke Ga proverbs, this link lead to the coffins’ occasional, and satisfyingly literal, naming of ‘proverbial coffins’ (akadi adekai in Ga)

[1989 display coffins by Kane Kwei and Paa Joe. Image via CNN]

Made by several specialist carpenters in the Greater Accra Region of Ghana, fantasy coffins build on established traditional beliefs of figurative palanquins. Figurative palanquins were types of ‘litters’, which are, in simple parlance, chairs, boxes or seats carried by footmen, transporting an individual from one place to another. Figurative palanquins were used by the Ga monarchy and their chiefs when visiting public events and were an outward representation of the status and identity of the person within.

Figurative coffins were first displayed outside of Ghana in 1989 when several examples were exhibited at Paris’ Musée National d’Art Moderne. The creators of these coffins were Kane Kwei (1922-1992) and his former assistant Paa Joe with their work inspiring new generations of carpenters. Kwei’s grandson Eric Adjetey Anang, alongside many others, have been internationally exhibited and celebrated for their distinctive funerary art.

Traditionally, only those of appropriate status were permitted to be buried in such an elaborate coffin, although it appears today that the only barrier is that of money. If you want to be buried in an enormous fish and have the cash to do so? Then buried you shall be. However, certain symbolic shapes, such as a sword, continue to be reserved for the monarchy or those who played a religious role. Similarly, certain animals such as crabs and lions represent different Ghanaian clans and are generally only used by leaders of that community, as much as one might want a crab coffin for the sheer fun of it. Poignantly, aeroplanes are popular contemporary forms as they signify the successful journey of the deceased’s soul into the afterlife.

[via Paa Joe on instagram]

Ghana may be one of the world’s largest cocoa producers, but extreme rural poverty is still a reality for many communities. Nonetheless, many farmers earning less than $3 a day continue to save their wages in the hope of affording a custom cocoa pod coffin, costing up to $1000 (£780).[1] In an article by the Guardian featuring two coffin workshops, workshop manager Eric Adjetey explained that the enormous chilli pepper coffin that sat within his workshop ‘carries a symbolic meaning that goes well beyond the life of a farmer… The red colour and spiciness represents the personality of that person. He was hot and temperamental, a person you don’t want to mess around with.’

Coffins made in the shape of luxury vehicles are particularly popular, with likenesses of the deceased’s automobiles carrying them to their final resting place. Such car coffins reiterate the individual’s social status as the entire structure is lowered into the ground. As wild as these coffins are, it has to be reiterated that they are functional pieces and fulfil a practical purpose, making the above-ground lifecycle of the art coffin very short indeed.

Funerals in Greater Accra can have many large costs, including the service, sustenance for the guests and new clothing for the deceased individual, before factoring in the price of the coffin.

[Image via PR]

Mr Adjetey, who has 50 years in the woodworking business explains the general timetable of Greater Accra funerals

“The ceremony happens from Thursday to Monday. On Thursday the family gets the coffin; on Friday the body is brought from the mortuary; on Saturday the funeral takes places, while on Sunday people go to church. On Monday family members count the money that was invested and donated.”

Considering the elaborate nature of the coffins, the construction is more of an intuitive process. The coffins are made to order, with carpenters given measurements of the deceased by the family, or simply guess based on images provided. Coffin carpenters generally have apprentices at their business, which allows them to work on several projects simultaneously and, should an urgent order arrive, complete them in double time. The tools used by these skilled craftsmen are relatively rudimentary by modern standards, being entirely constructed without the aid of electric tools; the majority of these coffins are crafted by hand using handmade tools. 

Coffins made for burial (as opposed to exhibition, where mahogany or another hardwood is used) are generally sculpted from the wawa tree and can take from between two to six weeks to complete, with the painting of said coffin generally taking two days to complete. For this final stage, local artists and sign writers – should the head carpenter not take this role – liaise with the coffin makers to decide upon the style, colours and patterns of the coffin before completing their work.

[Image via Alamy]

Today, the Greater Accra carpenters have received orders from over 20 countries and play host to many international woodworking students, keen to learn their craft. As far as funerary art is concerned, I’d be hard pressed to find a more beautiful and celebratory method of interring a loved one. Now if anyone needs me, I’m putting in my order for a Jaffa Cake coffin.

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Further Reading/Sources:

https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/gallery/2010/nov/14/ghana-coffins

https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-africa-46142977

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fantasy_coffin

https://edition.cnn.com/2017/12/29/africa/ghana-fantasy-coffin/index.html

[1] https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/gallery/2010/nov/14/ghana-coffins

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