ACCRA – In Ghana, it is not unusual for the departed to say goodbye to this world in a soccer boot, cocoa pod or airplane-shaped coffin.
Ghanaians take great pride in making elaborate caskets that represent a person’s passion in life.
“The main idea was purposely to represent the profession or position being held in the community – the cocoa pod for the cocoa farmer, we have the car for the driver,” Eric Adjetey, third generation coffin maker, told EFE.
“But at the same time some of the stuff represent what the people stand for, let’s say somebody’s very wealthy and we see during those days we see the Mercedes-Benz as very wealthy, expensive car, so a very rich person might be buried in such a piece.”
Adjetey, the son and grandson of carpentry craftsmen, said the tradition began in the 1950s when his grandfather decided to fulfill the last wish of his wife: to bury her in an airplane-shaped coffin.
“They were building the Kotoka International Airport (Accra), you can see the planes flying and landing from the shop. There was this old great-grandma of mine who was talking about these planes and how she wants to fly in one of those. Unfortunately, she passed away, she couldn’t fly so my grandfather built a piece in the shape of an airplane for her,” Adjetey said.
In a society of fishermen, burying an old woman in an airplane was a “huge and amazing thing,” he added, an unprecedented milestone that marked the beginning of new orders of coffins and brought prosperity and renown to his family.
Since then, despite some bumps in the road, the devotion of the family to this profession has remained unscathed, even after Adjetey’s father advised him to go to university and not to follow in his footsteps.
“In Ghana, carpentry is not seen as a good profession. Just like my father, many others do not want their sons to dedicate themselves to this,” Adjetey said. “But if you know what you really want to do, you do not need anyone to tell you what suits you and what not.”
Creating these types of coffins involves spending weeks cutting and fitting together pieces of wood, which are finished with detailed and laborious paint that makes the models incredibly realistic.
But for Adjetey, it is more than a physical effort; his work symbolizes a rich cultural tradition essential for the subsequent celebration of a funeral, which lasts for several days in Ghana and ends with a banquet attended by hundreds or thousands of guests.
“To be a good coffin craftsman, you must know what each figure represents. Many have lost that and cannot tell you what they are doing or why,” he said.
He said a coffin in the shape of a tortoise or a snail would be good for lawyers and community leaders, because “they might solve your problem, but that’s going to take time of a while.”
Ghanaian funerals are also a symbol of the family’s social status, which is why many people keep their dead for months in the morgue while organizing a lavish ceremony, in which the coffin alone could cost $2,000.
“Giving your parents a proper burial makes you fit in the community and in society. It indicates that you lived a good life and you were able to save up. So, even when families do not have enough money they resort to a loan,” he said.
The family is presented with the coffin on Thursday. On Friday morning, they take the body from the morgue and take it to the mother’s house to wash it and from there it is transferred to the father’s house, where it remains until Saturday or Sunday, the day of the service.
“They have a very huge celebration, between 500 and 2,000 guests depending on how well-known you are in the community. It is a lot of people to feast and eat and drink,” he added.
Funerals can cost more than $10,000 and relatives do not skimp on the arrangements, such as dressing the deceased in a costume or inviting every acquaintance, which put the honor of the family at stake.
“It’s a ceremony that involves the community, a life well-lived. They don’t care when they’re buying the coffin that much about the price they pay for the coffin, though they try to negotiate to get the best price,” Adjetey said.
He added that he is proud to be part of a tradition that celebrates what a person loved during their life.