In Ghana, funerals are a time for celebration and coffins come in every shape imaginable.
Ghanaian craftsmen have reinvented the coffin. The unique tradition of fantasy coffins has become popular in the West African country over the last half a century, and captured the imagination of people worldwide.
In the city of Accra, a master craftsman called Joseph Ashong, more commonly known as Paa Joe, creates spectacular wooden coffins. Fantasy coffins and come in all shapes and sizes, including animals, fruit and vegetables, vehicles and designer products.
Craftsmen at the Kane Kwei Workshop. Photo by Jean-Michel Rousset.
The tradition of fantasy coffins has its roots in the traditional culture of the people known as the Ga community. Some historians have suggested that the coffins were inspired by the elaborate palanquins that Ga chiefs were carried on in life, and often buried with. These palanquins would be lavishly carved and decorated with symbolic animals.
Paa Joe has been making fantasy coffins for over 50 years, after learning the craft from his uncle as a teenager.
Artist Daniel Mensah with a motor car coffin and Paa Joe with his sandal fantasy coffin. Photos by Regula Tschumi.
He also trained as an apprentice under Seth Kane Kwei, an artisan coffin-maker who popularised the fantasy coffin and had his work displayed in the National Museum of Modern Art in Paris. The Kane Kwei Workshop, founded in the 1950s, is still producing beautiful coffins and training a new generation of craftsmen.
In an interview with CNN, Paa Joe explained why these ornate coffins are popular in Ghana. “The Ga community, to which I belong, believe in the afterlife,” he said, “and they believe also that the coffins I make will deliver them to this new beginning.”
The Kane Kwei Coffins workshop, and a fish-shaped coffin in progress at the workshop. Photos by David Stanley.
The coffins often symbolise the profession of the person who died. For example, fish coffins are popular for fishermen, or Paa Joe could make a guitar-shaped coffin for a musician. Animal-shaped coffins may also be emblems of the person’s clan.
“The photographer is buried in a camera while a business tycoon is buried in a Mercedes, Porsche, vintage car or a Ferrari,” Paa Joe explained. “A king or a family leader is buried in a lion, eagle, fallen tree, rooster or a stool.”
The custom coffins that Paa Joe makes can cost anywhere between $1,000 and $15,000, depending on the design and materials used. Each one takes several weeks to hand craft and paint.
An apprentice making a van-shaped coffin, and a Coca Cola bottle casket. Photos by S Shreeves and Emilio Labrador.
Despite this, he says that people in Ghana don’t necessarily see his creations as pieces of art. Fantasy coffins are simply a respectful way to lay a loved one to rest. That doesn’t stop Paa Joe taking his craft very seriously, calling himself “the Grandfather of fantasy coffin makers in Ghana.”
You can follow Paa Joe on Instagram to see all his latest creations.
For families in Ghana, a fantasy coffin is a unique and very special way to honour a loved one, paying tribute to their personality. In the UK too, personalised funerals are becoming an important way to say goodbye to a loved one, with more people planning ahead to make sure their final send-off is a reflection of who they are.
Find out how you can plan ahead with an Avalon funeral plan.
About the author
With a Masters from the University of Bristol, Jessica Hanson has worked in the funeral sector for several years, following the latest industry trends and writing about end of life planning. Jessica has previously written as a blogger for the Huffington Post, covering topics such as death positivity, understanding grief and how funerals are changing. You can find Jessica on LinkedIn and Twitter.