Celebrating death in style: Ghana's fantasy coffins

Story highlights

  • Some coffin makers in Ghana make elaborate "fantasy coffins"
  • The coffins are made to symbolize the deceased's profession in life

(CNN)It's a business that thrives on death, but a group of coffin makers in Ghana has made something quite remarkable out of it.

They call themselves "fantasy" coffin makers and they make coffins that are anything but ordinary, producing caskets in the form of ships, buildings, animals, cars and much more.
    They make caskets for families who believe that life transcends death and that the deceased will continue with his or her profession in the afterlife. The idea is that the dead have to be buried in something that represents the job they did while alive, so that they remember where they come from and what they have left behind.
    Making fantasy coffins is a serious business in Ghana, says Joseph Ashong (better known as Paa Joe), a prominent practitioner of the craft. He has been in the trade for more than 50 years and recalls how he started out in his career.

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    "In 1962, when I was 15 years old, my mother sent me to work with my uncle to learn the coffin trade," he remembers.
    "I graduated (from the apprenticeship) in 1974 and have made coffins ever since."
    It's this business that has sustained Paa Joe and his family over the years, and the same business that caught the attention of former UN secretary general Kofi Annan and former US president Bill Clinton, who have both reportedly visited Paa Joe in the past, as well as former US president Jimmy Carter, who reportedly purchased two fantasy coffins made by him.

    A new beginning

    For international clients, he bills anything from $5,000 to $15,000 per coffin. The materials for making coffins to international standards are not cheap, Paa Joe says. Mahogany or some high-grade hardwood is used to protect the coffins from insects and cracking. The finish has to be perfect, he explains.
    For a local client, however, he can use cheaper materials and charge as little as $1,000.
    "It depends on the details," he says, referring to the shape of the coffin; whether it's a coffin shaped like a shoe, animal or human being, Paa Joe has made them all.
    "The Ga community, to which I belong, believe in the afterlife and they believe also that the coffins I make will deliver them to this new beginning," he tells CNN.
    A fantasy coffin maker can make 7 or 8 coffins in a month when business is good, especially in the Central Accra region. But Paa Joe is now located miles away from Ghana's capital and says there is less demand for his coffins.
    He has fewer apprentices now and he says fewer people are dying these days.
    Ghana's mortality rate has fallen from around 9 deaths per 1,000 people in 2015 to 7 deaths per 1,000 in 2017.
    Still, Paa Joe makes up to four fantasy coffins every month. "It's a very profitable business," he says.

    Training the next generation

    There are currently 8-10 fantasy coffin makers in the Ghana, with most working in the Accra region.
    This number is small, but Paa Joe believes the fantasy coffin business holds more promise for younger people, especially those who want to express their art and are ready to work hard.
    He says he has trained over 100 people who either work for other coffin makers or have started other businesses.

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    But he's aware of the sensitivity around having a successful business that relies on death.
    "We are not happy when people die," he explains. "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."

    'One does not take it anywhere'

    A number of Paa Joe's creations have been displayed exhibited around the world, and some are currently being showcased in an exhibition at Accra's Gallery 1957, in collaboration with performance artist Elisabeth Efua Sutherland.
    "We want the exhibition to promote the heritage of both the Ga and Fante communities," Paa Joe says, with Sutherland coming from the Fante community. "The exhibition focuses on the fictional passing of a young girl, which presents death as a journey, mediated through water."
    The exhibition is titled "akԑ yaaa heko," which loosely translates to "one does not take it anywhere."
    But what does Paa Joe think would be a suitable coffin for a deceased journalist?
    "If you were in Ghana," Paa tells us, "you may be buried in a camera coffin so you continue journalism after life."
    We do not ask Paa Joe what kind of coffin he would like to be buried in: perhaps one shaped liked a hammer, or a wooden casket.
    Ultimately, it's not a decision you get to make for yourself. Your loved ones will decide for you.