A forlorn coffin standing off to itself
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    Auction Finds

    Ghana coffins in the shape of beer bottles & more

    I came looking for the coffins, the shellac boxes that cost too much money but we all feel obligated to bury our loved ones in, anyway. These were supposed to be African coffins, so I didn’t expect anything as fancy as our own.

    As I previewed the items at the auction, I didn’t see anything resembling the coffins that my auction pal Rebecca had seen on the website. So I finally asked a man who seemed to be in charge. I’m looking for the African coffins, I said.

    I followed him around the corner into a spacious spot in a large and spacious room, but I still didn’t see any coffins. What I saw were a painted oversized soda can and two beer bottles more than six feet tall. Those, he said, were the coffins.

    Ghana coffins

    A Ghana flour sack coffin. The coffin is on a platform used by pallbearers to carry the body.

    They were unlike any coffins I had seen before. For one thing, they were standing upright: Who gets buried standing up? Then he mentioned that the staff had stood the coffins up, but normally they were prone on a riser with extensions for the pallbearers to carry them.

    Alex Stanku, the gallery manager at Material Culture, which was auctioning folk and ethnographic art, opened the can coffin. Using his fingers as a tool, he pulled back a hinged door without handles, and inside were planks of wood with no adornments whatsoever. I can only assume that these coffins were not quite finished, because I saw a huge black gorilla on all fours on the first floor with a pink lining.

    The coffins were made in Ghana, and this one, he said as he walked over to a white rectangular box with lots of writing on the side, was made from a flour sack.

    Ghana coffins

    An Aquarius soda can coffin, front and side views.

    That’s a coffin, I said – not asked – incredulously. And it was. It had the markings of a real wheat flour sack like the ones used as the canvas for some artwork also up for auction. I followed Stanku as he pointed out an Obama painting, turning it over at one corner so I could see the flour sack on the opposite side, along with several oversized African movie posters – including “Python King ” and “Anaconda.”

    I’d heard of eccentric Americans being buried in their beloved automobiles or with something else outrageous, but specially made coffins were new to me. Stanku mentioned that PBS had done a story on the coffins of Ghana, so I went looking to learn more.

    It seems that I am a little late to what are called “fantasy coffins.” And they are not just mere coffins, they are works of art.

    Ghana coffins

    A Club beer bottle coffin, closed and opened.

    Custom-made coffins are made by the Ga people in the suburb of Teshi in Accra, Ghana. These coffins are beautifully crafted to represent the status, trade, pleasure and vice of the deceased as they enter their next life. It can take up to a month to make one of the coffins, which come in many forms – from airplanes to cellphones to lions to canoes to Bibles to Mercedes to a sewing machine.

    Here are some examples. The art is short-lived, though, because the casket arrives on the day of the funeral and is soon buried with the body.

    These figurative coffins first took hold in the country in the 1950s when a village chief ordered a cacao pod from a carpenter but died before it was finished. The family decided to bury him in it, parading it as part of the funeral celebration. Carpenter Kane Kwei heard about the unusual coffin, but didn’t think any more about it until his grandmother died. Remembering her fascination with airplanes – although she never got to fly in one – he made her a coffin in the shape of one, meticulously carving and painting it.

    Ghana coffins

    A Star beer bottle coffin.

    He soon got orders from other people and his status as a master coffin maker was born.

    The coffins became well-known internationally around 1989, according to Wikipedia, when several by Kwei and his apprentice Paa Joe were featured in an exhibit in Paris. They are now said to be prized by both collectors and museums. Some coffins are featured in the National Museum of Funeral History in Houston. Paa Joe created a coffin in the shape of a Nike sneaker in 1990, and it is on display at the Brooklyn Museum of Art.

    Former president Jimmy Carter is said to be among the folks who have purchased these designer coffins (an eagle, fish and bell pepper, which I assume were smaller pieces).

    In Ghana itself, the coffins are not cheap. They can run from $300 to $800 each in a country where money is scarce. But it is also a country where funerals are both sacred and celebrated, and are weekend-long social events of food and parties.

    Ghana coffins

    A snail and a duck coffin were the smallest of the Ghana coffins.

    None of the coffins at auction seemed to be signed (I’m not sure if any of them are). They sold in the lower range of the price that Ghanaians might pay for theirs.

    Flour sack coffin (34″ tall x 77″ long), $325.

    Club beer coffin (82″ tall), $400.

    Aquarius soda can coffin (78″ tall), $300.

    Star beer coffin (100″ tall), $325.

    On a table at the auction were two smaller coffins, much too small for a human: a 12″-tall duck and a 10″-tall snail, both of which sold for $60 each.

    Since the coffins indicate a person’s pleasure or vice, I can only assume that the two beer bottles were for people who loved their beer, the Aquarius can for someone who loved this Coca Cola-made soda and the flour sack for a baker.

    What type of coffin would you like to be buried in? As for myself, I’d have to give it some thought.


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