In Ghana, people of the Ga-Adangbe ethnic group believe that when they die, they move into their next life and continue to touch the lives of those left on earth. To guarantee smooth transfer into the next world, families bury their dead relatives in elaborate coffins made to symbolize their lives. On Saturday we toured three coffin workshops to see how the coffins are built and decorated.
In the early 1950s, a fisherman from Accra was buried in a fish-shaped coffin. Since he had made his life from the sea, he wanted to move into his next life in a manner that reflected his skills. Shortly after the first symbolic fish coffin was built, a number of skilled carpenters popularized the practice around Accra. Seth Kane Kwei, one of the original creators of the coffins, opened the first special workshop dedicated to making the specialized caskets and the trade began to blossom.
Woodworking apprentices train for several years under the master craftsmen, and then when they’re ready, they move down the street (Teshie Road) and open their own workshop. Thus, the three workshops that we visited were all descendents of the original Seth Kane Kwei shop
Coffins range from representations of careers, such as fisherman, baker, truck driver, pilot, cattle farmer, and taxi driver, to more detailed depictions of the deceased’s habits.
Alcohol bottles and cigarette-shaped coffins portraying the vices of the dead are also popular. (We didn’t get the details about the coffin representing a condom package!)
Family members can choose anything representing the life of the deceased to serve as the vessel guiding them to their next life. I asked whether anyone picks out his coffin style in advance, and was greeted by a rather shocked look, “No madam...it’s chosen after the person is dead. The body is placed in a freezer until the coffin is ready to be used for the burial.”
Saturday is “funeral day” around Accra. These are very elaborate parties where everyone is dressed in red and black, with photos of the deceased pinned to their skirts or shirts. A poster showing a picture of the deceased is often placed around the town with the date and time of the funeral so people know when it will be. These are often labeled as “Gone to Glory” or “Called to Heaven”. Although Ga funerals are still a sad event, the unique coffins allow them to celebrate the life of the deceased and cull favor with their ancestors.
These skilled craftsmen have also branched out to use their woodworking skills for other commercial purposes. Thus, the iPhone sculpture and the John Lennon guitar. One would have to be quite skinny to be buried in these!
Ed thought this cabinet below would look awesome at our house in Ketchum! And, he documented our day with lots of photos in the gallery, Final Resting Places. Be sure to check it out!