Funerals are a grave affair in the UK, with mourners often wearing black.
But death is different in Ghana, where it is celebrated as the start of the afterlife.
Funerals are occasions for celebration and the deceased are given a boisterous farewell, with parties lasting up to three days.
It’s this joyous approach that’s reflected in the trend for fantasy coffins: colourful, bespoke caskets that represent the work or interests of the deceased.
And over the last 50 years, Greater Accra’s Ga community has become renowned world-wide for its wild and wonderful creations.
Now considered works of art, it takes a master carpenter to create them. Fortunately, Ghana has plenty.
Fantasy coffins date back to the 1950s, and a craftsman named Seth Kane Kwei.
Kwei originally built palanquins, wooden transports used to hold tribal chiefs aloft during festivals.
When a chief ordered one shaped as a cocoa pod and died unexpectedly before the festival, the pod was repurposed as his coffin.
And when Kwei’s wife died shortly afterwards, he set to work creating the first recorded fantasy coffin: an aeroplane, to mark his wife’s unfulfilled travelling ambitions.
A hulk lunchbox is a surreal commission
“We believe in the afterlife and they believe also that the coffins I make will deliver them to this new beginning”
His creation proved so popular that Kwei started his own workshop.
There are now numerous funeral coffin makers dotted along Eastern Accra’s Teshi high street, but in 1964 Kwei passed on his knowledge to his apprentice Paa Joe – real name Joseph Ashong – who would proceed to bring Ghana’s fantasy coffins to world-wide attention and acclaim.
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 tells Daily Star Online, 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”.
At 70 years of age, Paa Joe is now considered by many to be a seminal figure in of Ghana’s fantasy coffin trade.
Rebekah Humphries at Accra’s Gallery 1957 helped put on an exhibition featuring Paa Joe work.
“The exhibition marked his 70th birthday and 40th year in the fantasy coffin making industry”, she tells Daily Star Online.
“Joe’s fantasy coffins depict objects which encapsulate the lifestyle of the deceased, ranging from wild animals to mobile phones.
“They have been exhibited internationally, including New York’s Brooklyn Museum, London’s V&A, and the Centre Pompidou in Paris”, she said.
Joe’s creations have attracted high-profile fans: former UN secretary general Kofi Annan, and ex-US president Jimmy Carter have reportedly purchased two coffins. And Bill Clinton also stopped by during his official state visit to Ghana in 1998.
However the practise encountered some resistance from the church: Ghana is a predominantly Christian nation and some pastors think such flashy coffins to be “un-Christian”.