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Carpenter's Clients Going in Style

Custom coffins are viewed as a statement, as 'prestige.' Some people also see the Ghanaian's elaborate creations as folk art.


ACCRA, Ghana — Keeping a person's character alive in death is Joseph Tettah Ashong's mission in life.

The Ghanaian carpenter, affectionately known as Paa Joe, seeks to avert the gloom of the Grim Reaper's arrival by dispatching his clients to their final resting places in spectacular designer coffins.

His passion for making caskets has been fed in recent years by a trend among many in this West African nation to throw ostentatious funerals complete with brass bands, extravagant costumes and abundant feasting. Ashong's job is to ensure that the deceased enters the ground in style.

You name it--you can be buried in it.

Ashong's creations have included a Tilapia fish for an angler; a lion for a chief; a beer bottle for a fan of the local brew; a Nike shoe for a runner; a Bible for a devout Christian; and, believe it or not, a pink womb.

Ashong's favorite design, a Mercedes-Benz 200SE, now stands in a museum in Zurich, Switzerland.

"If you use this kind of coffin, it means you're somebody," the 52-year-old said. "It's prestige."

His customers come from as near as the suburbs of this capital to as far as the United States and Japan.

In Ghana, his work is typically commissioned by the bereaved family, which usually picks a coffin inspired by the deceased's occupation and wealth. The flamboyant casket is just one highlight of the funeral, which can sometimes take over whole neighborhoods, with roads blocked off by canopies, chairs and even portable toilets.

Some local authorities are trying to clamp down on grandiose funerals, saying they are an unnecessary extravagance. At least three local councils have passed legislation mandating funerals be the solemn event they once were.

"People have brought in some unnecessary things in funerals," said R.K. Obiri Yeboah, administrative officer at the Center for National Culture in Kumasi, home to Ghana's ethnic Ashantis. "We meant to be honoring the dead. If you party, you are defeating the aim."

The local council in Kumasi recently set up a committee to regulate the length of time a corpse should be kept before being buried, and it banned wake-keeping and the customary awarding of cash donations to the bereaved family.

It has also prohibited the playing of brass band music and has sought to phase out the customary "eighth day" after-death festivities, at which people typically eat and drink in excess.

"We are trying to bring down funeral costs," Yeboah said.

Despite the crackdown, Ashong said there is a thriving market for his product.

He reckoned that he and his 10 apprentices make as many as 200 designer coffins a year, for between $230 and $450 apiece. Caskets intended for export or exhibition go for between $900 and $1,200. Mahogany is used for these; teak for burial coffins. The wood is covered with emulsion, followed by oil paint for gloss and decoration.

Each creation takes two to four weeks to complete, but the carpenter boasted that in an emergency, he could produce one in three days.

"I'm sure it's a talent God gave me," said Ashong, who doesn't rely on a pattern for his work. Many customers view his coffins, quite simply, as art.

"They're wonderful folk art," said Bonnie Brown, whose husband, Ken Brown--the U.S. ambassador to Ghana from 1992-95, he--bought her two of Ashong's coffins as a gift. "They're really a celebration of what people have been in life, or what they would have liked to have been. They're just very appealing."

The Browns have a red pepper coffin; the other is a pigeon-toed elephant with pink toenails, which takes up a 3-by-7-foot space in their family room in North Carolina.

"It's sort of part of the family now," Bonnie Brown said. "People have great affection for it."

This is the fate Ashong would prefer for his creations.

"People pay for their coffin, so I don't mind which way they use [it]," he said. "But sometimes, it's very sad to know you spent so much time and care [creating a coffin] only for it to end up rotting in a grave."

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