Paa JoeWhen the passing of a family member or an esteemed person in the Ga community of southern Ghana occurs, their life is celebrated as per the Ga customs, and they are ushered into the next life with elaborately designed fantasy coffins. Ghana’s tradition of elaborate coffins used to bury the dead has gained the attention of artists across the world and interest from prominent individuals such as former UN secretary general Kofi Annan and former U.S. Head of State Bill Clinton.
Fantasy coffins are an extension of the group’s religious and traditional beliefs about death, which are that death is not the end and that life continues in the next world, and by giving the dead a good sendoff, they can they secure good favor with the departed who they believe still have great influence over life on earth. The coffins form part of one of the Ga’s funeral custom of giving the deceased a dignified funeral to show appreciation for their life. Coffins also symbolize a family’s social status and the importance of the deceased one. The more elaborate the coffin is, the more esteemed the family and deceased person is.
Well known carpenters who popularized this tradition and made it into an art form are Kane Kwei from Teshie and Ataa Oko from La. They were prominent in the Ga community during the 1950s for their spectacular designs. Kane Kwei’s nephew, Paa Joe, is one of the region’s most well-known coffin designers, with his work being featured in museums across the world. Coffins intended for burial are made from soft wood by a master craftman’s apprentice, and sell for between $400 and $700. Coffins produced for museums are made from hard woods like mahogany to guard against cracking and insect attacks, especially when they’re being transferred across continents. A coffin takes between 2 and 6 weeks to produce as it is dependent on the complexity of the construction and the carpenters’ level of experience.
Joe’s artistic coffins include handcrafted designs of Porsches, naked women, Nike trainers, cameras, Coca-Cola bottles and chili peppers. Even though a number of workshops are under threat increasing land and property prices, Ghana’s funeral industry is booming, with entrepreneurs making a business out of professional mourning, and off-course, fantasy coffin design and manufacturing, popularly known as abebuu adekai.