From the country that brought you Azonto music and kente cloth, today let’s enjoy the exuberance of a fantasy coffin! To say that funerals are a big deal in Ghana, might just be the understatement of the century. Let me give you an example. Not long after we first arrived, my husband was approached by one of his colleagues who informed him that he would not be at work in 2 weeks time because ‘I have to bury my father’. Coming, as we do, from a culture where the funeral happens generally 3–5 days after death, he was somewhat taken aback. How could this be? How did he know his father was going to die in time for his funeral to be in exactly 2 weeks? It all seemed very mysterious, not to mention a little macabre, when the truth was revealed.
The man had been dead for months.
To borrow a term from a Ghanaian friend of ours, the man had been kept “in the fridge” for several months before the funeral took place. When you think about it, it does make sense, by delaying the funeral, more people have the opportunity to attend and pay their respects to the deceased. For a senior family member this would typically involve people travelling from overseas to attend the funeral, whose celebration of life extends over several days. And on a practical level, more people attending the funeral, means more financial contribution to the family (it is customary to donate money to the deceased’s family, to pay for the expenses and distribute any remaining according to seniority in the family). So, in a catch-22 situation, the longer you wait for the funeral, the more people may attend the funeral, the more elaborate it can be, the more people you need to attend the funeral to help pay for it.
And nowhere is the elaborate nature of a Ghanaian funeral more profoundly demonstrated than in the fabulous coffins of the Ga coastal people. Perhaps you’ve seen these coffins before; wonderful giant fish and crabs for the fishermen, cocoa pods for the farmer, a pen for a scholar, a tro-tro for a mini-bus driver, a Nike shoe….for a guy who really liked Nike shoes! And, of course, the Ghana Airlines plane to whisk you to the afterlife in style.
One of the fabulously surreal aspects of living in Ghana, is that I recently had the opportunity to visit a coffin maker. His name is Eric, and for those of you in Accra, who might like to visit him, his details are below.
He works in a tarpaulin covered shelter, down a small lane of the main coastal road of Accra, at La Beach, just down from the fabulous Artists Alliance Gallery. Despite his modest surroundings, his coffins are wonderful works of art. All are created with no use of power tools. I have so much respect for artisans like Eric, who manage to create fabulous pieces with very basic tools, while we in the developed world have every possible tool for every possible occasion.
Eric showed us giant beer bottles and mobile phones, coffins made to look like fishing nets full of fish and giant roosters. His work has been shown in exhibitions in England, but his main business is work for funerals. He can make only 20-30 coffins a year, for despite the terrific outlay for most (Christian) Ghanaian funerals, a fantasy coffin is an expense many cannot afford (starting at GHC1000). For those not in the immediate need of a coffin (and lets hope that’s most of us), he makes small boxes in the shape of lizards, fish, flour sacks, and the ubiquitous beer bottle. I’m sure he would turn his hand to anything a customer requested. But for the Pentecostals out there, he told us that they can only be buried in bibles or eagles…no mobile phone coffins for you! Here is a short video of Eric explaining his latest commission, a small sports car to remember a brother killed in a car accident. [email subscribers, click to play].
He told us that fantasy coffins started with the funeral of a Ga chief some years ago. It was the Ghana Airways plane.
Coming from a society with a largely British heritage, where funerals are typically sombre events in an increasingly secular society, a Ghanaian funeral can be somewhat of a shock. I very sadly had to attend the funeral of one of the staff from my husbands work a few years ago. I wrote about that experience and Ghanaian funeral culture here and here. While our funerals have their traditions, the extent, the layers of tradition (and sheer length) of a Ghanaian funeral was quite profound experience of different cultural values. To borrow a line from a BBC Nigerian journalist, Nigerians (and I extend this to Ghanaians as well), are ‘notoriously religious’, and combine this with the strong traditions and a love of (loud!) music and singing, and an intent to ‘celebrate a life’ rather than mourn a death, a fantasy coffin seems quite logical. The funeral I attended was an Ashanti funeral, and hence they did not use a fantasy coffin. But over the last few years, I do notice that fantasy coffins are becoming more popular. Even in the local town in Ashanti Region where my husband works (which we lived in for 2 years and regularly visit), one of the local coffin makers has started creating houses, pens, bibles, and, in a largely cocoa growing area, cocoa pods for the farmers.
To me it seems a pity to bury such a wonderful work of art after their brief public use. And to be honest, I’d love a coffin in my home, as a work of art or a piece of furniture, rather than a macabre reminder of the transience of life. Do you think that is a little bizarre? Friends assure me I am being a bit weird, and many Ghanaians would feel uncomfortable in my home as a result. But Eric has come up with a solution, as he also makes cupboards as well as mini-boxes. But I find the thought of a giant fish or crab incredibly appealing.
If you had the opportunity to choose a coffin that represented your life, what would it be? After seeing a coffin in the shape of an old-fashioned iron being made in Eric’s workshop I know if I was buried in one of those (or a vacuum cleaner)…I’d kick my way out!!
[For those in Accra, the Artists Alliance Gallery, just down Labadi Beach road also has some great coffins in their gallery].