The Fantastical Coffins of Ghana

It’s a question we’d never considered before coming to Ghana, but why is it that we all choose to be buried in boring, expensive wooden boxes? This is your death! If there’s any time to go overboard, it’s now. In Ghana, it’s common to be buried in a colorful coffin that celebrates your life. After all, if you’ve spent your life farming bananas, would you rather be laid to rest in an ugly brown box… or in a bright yellow banana?

Coffins of Ghana

Most of Ghana’s coffin workshops are found in the town of Teshie, just to the east of Accra, but we got a recommendation to check out Paa Joe’s, on the road to Kumasi immediately past the Pobiman toll booth. We showed up without warning, but Paa Joe’s son, Joseph, happened to be working and was happy to welcome us in. He invited us to check out the shop, which him and his team work, to take all the pictures we wanted.

These coffins — a chameleon, a Coke bottle, a fish, a turkey — make for beautiful sculptures. And like great art, their meaning deepens the longer you consider them. I mean, the chameleon is cool, but who chooses to be buried in one? I love it now that I’ve seen it, but how do you come up with such a thing?! Also with the Coke bottle; did this person just really love soda? It nearly broke my heart to discover a child-sized coke bottle next to the larger one. I can just imagine a mom and her daughter, sitting outside their house, enjoying their favorite drink.

Ghana’s fantasy coffins are known as abebuu adekai, and have become renowned around the world as legitimate works of art. In fact, Paa Joe has had his works displayed in prominent museums around the world, including the British Museum in London, the Brooklyn Museum and the Centre Pompidou in Paris. Two of the sculptures in the workshop during our visit, including the chameleon, were on their way to a show in Montreal. He’s also been the subject a feature-length documentary called Paa Joe and the Lion. Check out the trailer here.

These coffins can cost a small fortune, and take months to produce — so they’re really only an option when a loved one’s death is anticipated in advance. This used to be a custom peculiar to just the Ga people of Ghana, but it’s caught on among the country’s other ethnicities as well.

On the trotro ride back to Accra, Jürgen and I discussed what our coffins might be. His was obvious: a camera. But I had to think about mine. Sure, my job is computer-based, but that doesn’t seem to capture my essence. Finally, I decided upon a globe; travel is, after all, my lifetime passion. That might be hard for the poor gravediggers to get into the ground, but I’ll leave instructions to curl me up into a tight fetal position, so the sphere can be as small as possible. And the mourners can even roll me into the hole.

What would you choose?

This Post Has One Comment

  1. I would choose to be buried in a life-sized replica of Shakespeare’s body.

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