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Saying goodbye with fantasy coffins

Funerals are important social occasions in Ghana where fancy coffins are in vogue.

india Updated: Jun 10, 2006 19:03 IST

The day before his mother's funeral, Donald Rockson had a last-minute change of heart about her bible-shaped coffin.

He had wanted the coffin to reflect his mother's position as a devout churchgoer in this suburb of Accra, Ghana's capital.

"She is a church elder so it should be a bible in which she is buried," he explained. "But the coffin was not nice, it was not presentable."

Ditching the bible idea, his search for the perfect coffin brought him to Daniel Mensah's coffin shop.

Rockson, who has saved a video of his mother lying in state on his mobile phone, comments with approval as Mensah and his apprentices pin silk and fix crosses and roses to an ornate white coffin, just minutes before the funeral is due to start.

Funerals are important social occasions in this West African country and elaborate, brightly coloured coffins have become an art form.

Most customers give Mensah more time than Rockson but all want to give their loved ones a fitting send-off in a coffin that honors who they were and what they did.

Fantasy coffins shaped like Coca-Cola bottles, chickens, cars, cameras, birds and bibles are all on sale in Teshie.
First popularized in the 1950s, the coffins cost between $300 and $800 in a country where many live on barely $2 a day.

Some say the coffin represents an aspiration, or pride in the achievements of a short earthly stay in a poor country.

"If you can't acquire it, you can at least be buried in it," said Kwame Labi, a research fellow at the University of Ghana's Institute of African Studies.

"It is born out of economic crisis, out of trying to build confidence and pride in what life you have."

In many African countries, rich funeral traditions have been eroded by poverty and the prevalence of HIV/AIDS but Ghana's stability and the relative prosperity in the world's second largest cocoa exporter have helped preserve these traditions.

Most weekends, funeral parties are held across the former British colony. In some towns, large billboards advertise the time and place of the "homecoming" or "farewell", usually accompanied by a picture of the deceased.

Other people take out full-page national newspaper adverts, inviting all to the funeral, but the most vivid expressions of this commitment to saying goodbye are the fantasy coffins.

Farmer Christoph Miensa Kofi Azornu harvested palm fruits and tapped palm trees, distilling their content into a popular local gin called akpeteshie.