Friday, May 7, 2010

GOING INTO DARKNESS: Fantastic Coffins of Africa

On my one and only trip to Ghana, the one thing that I truly wanted to see, almost even more than the slave castles of Cape Coast, were the coffins created by the master coffin makers of the Ga tribe.  Why coffins you might ask, you must have a fascination with death you might also think.  No, death is not something I think on often and I dont have any particular fascination with it, but I do have a fascination with the ways in which different cultures celebrate life by honoring their dead- whether it be an Irish wake, the third line procession of a New Orleans funeral or as in Ghana with the Ga people designing fascinating and elaborate coffins to bury the newly deceased in.  Such celebrations of life and death do intrigue me.  These coffins arent just the run of the mill coffins, but are designed with the deceased in mind and sometimes even commissioned by the dying before their death.  There are coffins made to look like Mercedes Benzes, Cigarettes, Fish of all sorts, all celebrating the way the deceased lived. 

pictures from

For the Ga tribe in coastal Ghana, funerals are a time of mourning, but also of celebration. The Ga people believe that when their loved ones die, they move on into another life -- and the Ga make sure they do so in style. They honor their dead with brightly colored coffins that celebrate the way they lived.

The coffins are designed to represent an aspect of the dead person's life -- such as a car if they were a driver, a fish if their livelihood was the sea -- or a sewing machine for a seamstress. They might also symbolize a vice -- such as a bottle of beer or a cigarette.
(click link to see more pictures)
So while driving through a section of Ghana outside of Accra the capital city, I scanned the roadsides for any sign of these fantastic and life affirming final resting places.  I did see regular, albeit quite fancy gold painted, gilded and quite ornamented, ones at the many wood working shops along the side of the road, but no sign of the specialty caskets I was so looking for.  The one book on the subject that I can find is called Going Into Darkenss: Fantastic Coffins From Africa.  This book highlights the history of such coffin making, history of the people and some of the famous coffin makers, as well as showing many glossy color pictures of these marvelous coffins. 

Other works on Ghana culture and history and Ghanaian art forms:
Historical dictionary of Ghana
The history of Ghana
The door of no return : the history of Cape Coast Castle and the Atlantic slave trade
Wrapped in pride : Ghanaian kente and African American identity
African majesty : the textile art of the Ashanti and Ewe