In Ghana, what you do defines you in life... and death

Story highlights

  • Kudjoe Affutu has been designing coffins since 2007
  • His creations reflect the professions of the deceased
  • His strangest creations include a hen, pregnant lady and sewing machine
Every week, African Start-Up follows entrepreneurs in various countries across the continent to see how they are working to make their business dreams become reality.

(CNN)You can rest when you're dead, as the saying goes. And in Ghana, your eternal slumber is done in style.

Burying your loved ones in intricate, beautifully crafted -- and, at times a little surreal -- caskets is a common tradition in some parts of the the West African nation. Based in Awutu, a small town in Ghana's central region, self-taught carpenter Kudjoe Affutu has made a name for himself with his eye-catching style of coffins.
    "I love playing with the wood," he says. "I didn't study it in the school -- I just love carving."
    The plucky, young artisan has always had a passion for woodwork and inspired by artists before him such as Kane Kwei and Paa Joe, his startup began to take shape.
    "I saw a designed coffin somewhere and I said: 'No, I have to do this' and I forced my parents to push me into it."
    By 2007, Affutu had opened the New Generation Woodwork Shop. Seven years on, and the craftsman has found big success thanks to his fantastical funerary boxes.
    From chickens to sewing machines
    Burial rites in Ghana are incredibly important in honoring ancestry. In a country where the passing of a loved one is often celebrated with a party-like fervor, the elaborate coffin art allows mourning family members and friends to send their dearly departed off to the afterlife in style.
    Affutu adds: "It's a special coffin that talks a lot about the deceased. But also for the family who sees it to as a last gift to the deceased."
    Often designs for these figurative coffins reflect the deceased's vocation or personality. Perhaps if you worked as a farmer, a chicken casket could be for you. What about a fashion designer? Well, a sewing machine, what else?
    Prices for a custom-made coffin from Affutu vary due to design request, size and where the casket needs to be shipped to.
    "When it's local, it could be around 1,000 Ghanaian cedi (around $300) and above. Exported ones are $1000 or more."
    Eye-catching and strange creations
    Over the years, Affutu has heard some weird, wonderful and downright bizarre requests for casket creations. Yet, whatever the request, he doesn't judge a family's choice -- he just sees it as a challenge.
    "I just think of it and am done. I always see my orders as normal no matter how weird it is," explains the artisan coffin maker.
    He adds: "A family came here some two years ago, and they said our late mother used to be a midwife and we want a designed coffin, something that can talk about her work -- and I came up with a pregnant woman who is about to deliver and it was a fantastic piece."
    Affutu has also constructed a variety of fisherman-inspired pieces for departed sea workers including canoes, fishing boats, nets and of course, a variety of fish.
    Today Affutu employs six full-time staff. But with an increased workforce, other problems arise.
    "Like today, for example, we have a lot of work here and I don't have a big shop..."
    He adds: "Sometimes the materials we use -- it can be scarce for a while and we don't have enough money to gather or to store materials for many years."
    However, Affutu is optimistic about the future, "In the next five years I want to extend my shop and even the workers or apprentices I have, so that when somebody orders something you can deliver days before its time."