In one of my previous posts, I talked about wood carving in Ghana. There is another important expression of wood craftsmanship in Ghana that should also be mentioned. I’m talking about hand-crafted wooden burial coffins, in the shape of everything from a Coke bottle to a Mercedes. This colorful art form is unique to Ghana.
For most tribal cultures in Ghana, especially the Ga people from around Accra, funerals are not only a time of mourning, but also a time of celebration. They can last a week with food and music and every relative and friend in attendance. The people believe that their departed loved one is moving to another life, and they make sure they do it in style.
In the 1960’s a creative carpenter named Seth Kane Kwei started making custom designed fantasy coffins which were called Abebuu adekai (" boxes with proverbs ") by Ga people. The concept became very popular and the construction of these coffins is still carried on today by relatives and former apprentices of Kwei in a number of wood shops scattered around southern Ghana. The coffins are designed to represent an important aspect of the deceased person’s life. It may be a taxi cab, if the person was a driver; or a fish if the person was a fisherman. It may be symbolize the person’s hobby, pet or even a vice like a bottle of beer or a cigarette.
The coffins are custom-made and can take up to three weeks to complete. During that time the deceased person is kept in a refrigerated morgue. Most coffins are usually made from a light, inexpensive wood such as wawa or alstonia boonei (cheese wood).
These special coffins are works of art, built by skilled carpenters; designed and finished by talented wood artists. Unlike many works of wood art that remain visible for centuries; these wood creations are buried with the deceased, never to be seen again. It is truly art for the moment, transitory art, like Tibetan Buddhist sand paintings. Each coffin is returned to the same earth that nourished the original tree which gave the wood to build the coffin. The cycle is complete.
The concept of hand-worked wood returning to the earth is the same for any wooden coffin, whether it is Ghana or an old cemetery here in the United States. The wood decays in the ground and a new tree grows, but the skill of the wood craftsman remains constant through all generations.
|Not Ghana, but the Moravian Cemetery, Bethlehem, PA|