Fish, shoes and chilli peppers: Ghana’s fantasy coffins are anything but grave

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    Fancy being buried in a fish after you die?

    Not a real one, obviously – that wouldn’t be pleasant for anyone (least of all the fish).

    Here’s what’s involved in a Tibetan sky burial

    But how about a wooden one, built to your exact specifications?

    In Ghana, a fish is just one of the options available for your final resting place. You can also choose mermaids, planes or even a lion. And the only limit is your imagination.

    Here’s what you need to know about the country’s fantasy funeral trend.

    Putting the ‘fun’ into funeral

    Over the last fifty years, the Ga community of Greater Accra has become renowned for its wild and wonderful ‘fantasy coffins’.

    Funerals in this coastal region are not the sombre affair we are used to in the UK.

    Death here is celebrated as the start of the afterlife and as such, funerals are jubilant occasions when the deceased are given an uproarious farewell.

    It’s common for Ghanaians to spend as much on funerals as weddings and they can last anywhere up to three days.

    A new trend for ‘dancing’ pallbearers involves a troupe dressed in flamboyant outfits that shimmy to music as they shoulder the coffin.

    It this joyous approach that’s reflected in the trend for ‘proverb coffins’ (abebuu adekai): colourful, bespoke caskets that represent the work or interests of the deceased.

    Considered works of art, it takes a master carpenter to create them.

    Fortunately, Ghana has plenty.

    The men who craft coffins 

    Fantasy coffins date back to the 1950s, and a craftsman named Seth Kane Kwei.

    Kwei originally built palanquins, wooden transports used to hold tribal chiefs aloft during festivals.

    One chief ordered a palanquin shaped as a cocoa pod but he died before the festival took place and the pod was repurposed as his coffin.

    When Kwei’s wife died shortly afterwards, Kwei set to work creating the first recorded fantasy coffin: an aeroplane, to fulfill his wife’s ambitions to travel that she had not achieved in life.

    His coffins proved so popular that Kwei started his own workshop.

    There are now numerous funeral coffin makers dotted along the high street in Teshi, Eastern Accra, but in 1964 Kwei would take on an apprentice who would bring Ghana’s fantasy coffins to the world stage.

    Paa Joe & the Lion

    Coffins in the shape of a Lion and a car are displayed at the South bank Centre on January 20, 2012 in London, England. A collection of bespoke coffins by 'Crazy Coffins' in Nottingham and the famous 'Pa Joe' workshop in Ghana are currently on display at the South Bank centre, who are currently running a festival celebrating life and death.
    Paa Joe’s lion coffin (Picture: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

    At 70 years of age, Paa Joe is considered by many to be a seminal figure in of Ghana’s fantasy coffin trade.

    He has web posts, column inches and even a film dedicated to him, called Paa Joe & the Lion – the work of British director Benjamin Wigley and producer Anna Griffin.

    It follows Joe on a visit to England and in one particularly poignant moment, Joe is captured fashioning a wooden coffin for his mother, who died in 2012 aged 107.

    Paa Joe – whose real name is Joseph Ashong – began his career back in the Sixties under Kwei’s tutelage.

    After 12 years, he left to set up his own business, creating hundreds of coffins and training the next generation of fantasy coffin makers.

    The coffins have not only made him a name in his home nation but across the world.

    They have been included in major art exhibitions everywhere from the Pompidou Centre in Paris to the Brooklyn Musuem in New York and the V&A in London.

    In 2010, a Paa Joe coffin, carved to resemble an eagle and painted in gold, took pride of place in the ‘Living and Dying Gallery’ at the British Museum.

    Joe has since completed a one-month residency at Clumber Park botanical gardens in Nottinghamshire, which provides the focus of Wigley’s documentary.

    State funerals

    Master coffin carver Paa Joe at home in Ghana
    Master coffin carver Paa Joe at home in Ghana (Picture: Photo by Guy Lowndes/Solent News/REX/Shutterstock)

    It’s not only the art world that appreciates Paa Joe’s handiwork.

    Dignitaries such as the former UN secretary general Kofi Annan have visited his workshop, as well as ex-US presidents Jimmy Carter (who is rumoured to have purchased two coffins) and Bill Clinton.

    Apparently Barack Obama also wanted to pop in, but his staff were unable to find Joe.

    This may be because Paa Joe has been forced to relocate.

    A downturn in trade has forced Joe and his son and partner Jacob, 29, to move their workshop from the country’s capital, Accra, to a road-side premises in Pobiman.

    The coffins are not cheap – the local price for one of Paa Joe’s finest is roughly £1,500, rising up to around £8,000 for coffins created for exhibitions.

    Paa Joe builds truck coffin for truck driver George Kwei Afotey, in his carpentry shop in Teshie, Ghana (Picture: Bob Carey/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
    Paa Joe builds truck coffin for truck driver George Kwei Afotey, in his carpentry shop in Teshie, Ghana (Picture: Bob Carey/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

    In their heyday, Joe and Jacob were making around 10 a month, now it is closer to two every month, although intricate designs take longer.

    They have also encountered some resistance from the church: Ghana is a predominantly Christian nation and some pastors think such flashy coffins to be ‘un-Christian’.

    Yet things are looking up.

    Following a screening of Paa Joe & the Lion, Joe and Jacob received their biggest commission to date, for a Chevrolet Stingray convertible that can accommodate not one, but two people.

    And Joe shows no signs of slowing down, although he already has his sights set on his own custom coffin for when his time comes – in the shape of a hammer, of course.

    Coffin couture: what would you choose?

    One of master coffin carver Paa Joe's fish coffins (Picture: Solent News/REX/Shutterstock)
    One of master coffin carver Paa Joe’s fish coffins (Picture: Solent News/REX/Shutterstock)

    Fancy a fantasy coffin of your own? Here are just some of the designs on offer, and the symbolism behind them.

    A building: A building was the first coffin Paa Joe created, designed in honour of a property developer.

    A giant fish: One of the most popular designs, fish come in an array of different colours and denote former fishermen, or anyone who has spent a long time at sea.

    A leopard: Leopard designs are usually reserved for hunters or tribal dignitaries.

    A lion: As built by Joe during his Nottinghamshire residency, lions symobolise the head of the family.

    A Ghana Airways plane: Another popular choice among people looking for a quick transition to the afterlife.

    A Coca-Cola bottle: This unusual coffin was apparently made for a street vendor.

    Dutch art collector Johanna Giesen (L) presents 08 July 2003 in Osnabrueck, northern Germany, a peperoni-shaped coffin created by artist and carpenter Paa Joe of Ghana. 29 fantasy coffins are displayed in the exhibition
    (Picture: DAVID HECKER/AFP/Getty Images)

    A chilli pepper: For those that like it hot.

    A Nokia mobile phone: Presumably for having contact beyond the grave.

    A syringe: A pointed farewell.

    A naked woman: They do say we leave the world with as little as we entered it…

    A man’s shoe: No better way to save your sole.

    A packet of Marlboro Reds: A hint at how this person died?

    A Twix: Err…sweet shop owner?

    A lunchbox with The Incredible Hulk on the front: No, I can’t explain this one either.

    (Top pic: Getty)

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