“Tour de Coffin”

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.  Memorial to a Fisherman

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.

and a fish

with a bakers oven nearby

in a Ghanian jet

overseen by a cow

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!)

Nearby a memorial to an AIDS prevention activist, perhaps

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!

John Lennon would have liked an iPhone

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!

Tour de Coffin 42

5 thoughts on ““Tour de Coffin”

  1. Diana James-Cairns

    amazing. I had heard about these casket makers before - but to hear it from your viewpoint was wonderful. I loved the condom one and the cow. What was the farmer casket like?

    Reply
  2. Betsy

    So fun to read about your adventures. I loved hearing about these coffins - such a wonderful way to commerate loved ones (well, may not the condum package) but what a personal tribute to those who have passed on.

    California will seem very boring to you when you return.

    Reply
  3. Bobpa

    Jan,
    Keep these posts coming!
    And Jennifer is looking forward to being with you.
    Best,
    Bob and Dottie
    p.s. Wednesday is Nigeria for us - with a visit from the Nigerian Ambassador to the U.S. and The Minister of Communication Technology

    Reply
  4. Hi Jan and Ed

    Congrats for your blog: quite nice to read it from expats who do not confine themselves in Ikoyi or VI.

    I'd like to give you some elements about design coffins, especially the work of Kane Kwei Carpentry Workshop that you visited.

    I guess that you Eric Adjetey Anang was not around when you went to the studio. He is the grandson of Kane Kwei. After he completed his secondary school, he decided to commit himself to revive his grand father's name and give a new breath to the art of coffins.

    The easiest way to really understand and discover his story, motivations and ambitions is to watch the excellent doc film (26mn) made for brazilian TV. You can find it on YouTube. Its title is "The Master of Coffins".

    Facebook page "Kane Kwei Carpentry Workshop" is also updated with all the projects Eric is involved in. Not to mention his website ghanacoffin.com.

    To answer your question about condom and guitar coffins: in order to free his creativity from local constraints with families, and to find the means to build models he has in mind, Eric is working with western collectors, museums, organisations. A new museum in St Petersburg has gave him a "carte blanche" that Eric used to address important issues for him like family planning, HIV AIDS, etc...

    Reply

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