Fantasy coffins are a special custom-made type of caskets very common to the Great Accra Region of Ghana, made to reflect the importance and personality of the deceased.
Fantasy coffins are also called proverbial coffins, abebuu adekai, or "okadi adekai" in Ga language. They were made popular by Kane Kwei (1922-1992) who is considered the father of fantasy coffins, and Joseph "Paa Joe" Ashong (b. 1947), one of the most famous coffin makers of his time.
The belief behind this within the Ga people is that elaborate coffins influence how the deceased live in the afterlife. They believe that life continues in the afterlife the same way it did in the real world and that ancestors can influence the lives of the living. Hence, the survived relatives try as much as possible to ensure that a dead person is sympathetic towards them as early as possible.
In some places in Nigeria, the social status of the deceased will reflect on how large and costly the burial is. However, in Ghana, the social status of the deceased is reflected by the importance, success and usage of an exclusive coffin during a burial, which will only be seen on the day of the funeral.
The coffins often symbolise the dead people’s professions but certain shapes, such as a sword, stool coffin, or some animals represent regal, priestly insignia and clan totems. Hence, only certain people such as kings, priests, heads of families are allowed to be buried in such coffins.
The use of these coffins within the Ga people have been traced to the beginning of the 20th century, to Ga chiefs and priests. However, Christians began to integrate it as part of local funeral culture around the 1950s.
The business of caskets
"We are not happy when people die," Paa Joe, who has been in the business for over 50 years, tells CNN. "We feel pity. We feel like giving them a befitting farewell, like giving them what they were doing when they were alive to continue because we believe life continues after life her."
Whatever the case, fantasy coffins is good business in Ghana, especially for Kane Kwei and Paa Joe, who made into a family business.
On a good month, or bad month depending on who you're speaking to, the coffin makers can construct at least 10 coffins for clients.
According to BBC, customers from more than 20 countries have requested and bought these coffins from workshops across Ghana and woodworking students in South Korea, Russia, US and Denmark have come to Ghana to learn the trade.
Paa Joe says that fantasy coffins can cost $5,000 to $15,000 for international clients, who mostly want them for showcase in museums, etc. This is because these types of coffins are made from hard woods like mahogany for durability and to guard against cracking and insect attacks.
Coffins intended for burial, however, are usually made from soft wood and prices range from $400 and $1000, especially for local clients. The family of the deceased determine the designs, which range from airplanes to cars to canons to animals and farm produce.
Fantasy coffins made by Paa Joe and Kane Kwei were shown in an exhibition for the first time at Les Magiciens de la terre at the Musée National d’Art Moderne in Paris in 1989, hence gaining international recognition.
In fact, the fantasy coffin family business had caught the attention of late former UN secretary general Kofi Annan and former US president Jimmy Carter, who reportedly purchased two fantasy coffins made by him. Former US president Bill Clinton also visited Paa Joe in 1998.