GHANA FANTASY COFFINS
While in the UK you generally have to seek out a Funeral Director or specialist who makes coffins, in many cities in Ghana you can walk down the street and find beautiful coffins for sale at the side of the road or in grocery shops and markets. I first noticed this when wandering through the city of Ho, in the Volta Region, where I looked up and saw a sign outside a shop advertising 'chairs, canopies, coffins'. When I looked in the shop, past the office supplies, sure enough there was a display of lovely satin-lined coffins. It wasn't morbid or macabre, just simply a shopkeeper catering for the inevitable.
For those looking to be buried in a more personalised coffin, there are specialists who create Ghana Fantasy Coffins - also known locally as 'abebuu adekai' or "proverb boxes' - which are burial vessels made to specific designs that relate to the deceased person's profession or personal interests. For example, a fisherman may be buried in a fish or canoe, a teacher in a pen, a soldier in a gun, and a driver in a truck. These painstakingly constructed and beautifully decorated coffins are intended to honour the deceased and send them into the afterlife in good stead. On my most recent visit to Ghana, I headed out to Teshie, a community on the outskirts of Accra, to meet Ernest 'Cedi' Anang Kwei who is part of a dynasty of carpenters credited with making coffin building into an art form. His father Seth Kane Kwei, founded the very first Fantasy coffin workshop in Ghana, while his son, Eric Adjetey Anang, now manages the business with the help of a group of apprentices.
In the 1950s Seth Kane Kwei started out as a carpenter and made palanquins, also known as sedan chairs, that were used to carry tribal chiefs at traditional festivals. One chief who had ordered a palanquin shaped as a cocoa pod died unexpectedly before the festival so was buried in the palanquin instead. Not long afterwards, Kane Kwei's grandmother died. She used to sit outside her home and stare up in amazement at the planes flying in and out of the newly built airport nearby, telling her family that she would love to fly one day. Since she never got the chance when she was alive, Seth Kane Kwei granted her wish posthumously by crafting her a coffin in the shape of a plane. After that he was asked to carve a canoe-shaped coffin for a high-ranking local fisherman and this led to other local people making requests for commissions. In the 1970s Kane Kwei moved the business out of his backyard and into a shop on the main road that runs through Teshie. He named it the Kane Kwei Carpentry Workshop.
On arrival at the workshop, I walked through the gate and into a cloud of thick smoke before finding a group of ladies sitting around a fire, while a pan of oil bubbled away on top of it. After indicating that I was there to see the coffins, they called Ernest who came out from the back wiping his hands on an old cloth and he welcomed me into the back workshop where a couple of young men were working on their latest project. As we stood amongst coffins in the shape of Trucks, Chickens, Fish, Pens, Sandals, and Houses, all in various states of completion,
Ernest told me about his son, Eric, who was working in Wisconsin at the time of my visit. Eric had been given the option of going to university after he finished high school but instead he opted to join Ernest in the workshop and took over the management of the business in 2005 when he was just twenty years old. The family were initially reluctant for Eric to be involved in making coffins as they thought he was clever enough to follow a more 'respectable' profession however, with the help of his father and eight apprentices, he transformed the image of the workshop which now produces over 300 coffins each year. Many of these are for burials for local people but others are also created for export to display at international exhibitions in countries including the United States, Canada, Belgium, Spain and South Korea. As well as a skilled carpenter, Eric has become an internationally renowned artist and educator, producing pieces for the Danish Images arts festival and embarking on a five-week residency at the Oregon College of Art and Craft in Portland, USA. Eric is also involved in anthropological research related to Ga people with Professor Roberta Bonetti, of the History of Anthropology department at University of Bologna.
Ernest took me to the front of the compound where there was a platform holding the coffins that were finished and ready for collection or distribution. Coffins take between two to six weeks to complete, depending on the complexity of the construction and the carpenters' level of experience. In urgent cases several carpenters will work on a single item to get it finished quicker. The coffins intended for burial are created with inexpensive light wood such as wawa or nyame dua, while those destined to be exported and displayed as artwork in colder climates tend to be made of harder woods such as ofram or African mahogany. Every coffin is carved by hand, with the team using photographs or miniature replicas as a guide. Once the basic shape is created, the wood is sanded down to create a clean, smooth surface for painting. Two coats of clear paint are sprayed before the coffin is decorated by the head of the workshop or by local sign writers and artists. The price of a coffin can vary between £300 for locals to up to £10,000 for international clients.
Although there is an abundance of designs available these days, Ernest explained that the most popular models haven't changed too much over the years. Being close to the coast means that fish are a preferred choice and, since Ghana is one of the highest producers of cocoa in the world, coffins in the shape of cocoa pods are also common. Before leaving, I asked Ernest if he had a preference regarding which type of coffin he wanted to be buried in. He instantly replied 'in a plane' like his great grandmother, and I realised he has probably been asked this question many times. When he returned the question, I took a minute and thought that it would be pretty cool to fly into the afterlife in a plane - but I replied that a guitar would be nice. He informed me that they've created many guitars before and also a piano for a music teacher in the Netherlands. Having walked me back towards the ladies still sitting around the smoking fire, we shook hands and said our goodbyes.
Whilst the concept of Fantasy coffins was originally popular among the Ga people of the region of Accra, the tradition has spread and is now practised in other areas of the country. Today, there are around 10 fantasy coffin workshops, all owned by former apprentices of the Kane Kwei Carpentry Workshop. If you're visiting Ghana, it's really worth taking an hour or so to pop into one and witness for yourself the immense skill and craftsmanship that goes into making one of the pieces. Although there's no official monetary charge to view the coffins, it's polite to offer a small payment in return for the workers taking time from their day to show you around.
Find out more info about the Kane Kwei Carpentry Workshop here.