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Ghanaians Meet Their Maker in Style

Colorful caskets, built in all shapes -- from a Mercedes Benz to a fish -- celebrate their life's work, and provide a final display of wealth.

September 21, 2003|Edward Harris | Associated Press Writer

ACCRA, Ghana — In life, Kofi Egan caught fish. In death, he'll lie in one -- a 6- 1/2-foot-long wooden casket shaped like a giant pink fish, with scales, tail, dorsal fin and puckered lips.

The fisherman, 47, fell sick during an expedition at sea off this West African nation and died, his brother says at a coffin maker's shop, wandering among brightly painted caskets built as chickens, cars, snails, cocoa pods, even a Bible.

"If you're a carpenter, you can be buried in a hammer, or a hunter in a lion," says Bruce Acquah, who commissioned his brother's casket.

Egan plied the Atlantic waters, so he'll spend eternity inside a wooden creature of the deep, Acquah says. "He was a professional."

Hundreds of Accra's successful are buried each year in costly coffins celebrating their life's work.

As the former British colony's economy developed over the last half century, workers took on specific roles and took pride in their jobs. Material success bloomed. That led to demand for showy caskets to provide a final display of wealth and status, coffin makers say.

The bones of lowlier Ghanaians are interred in boxes of roughhewn boards.

Among the tin-roofed shacks lining a main thoroughfare in one of Accra's poorest neighborhoods stand four open-air coffin stores, strewn with wood chips. Each is run by a former apprentice to Samuel Kane Kwei, the sculptor who began creating Accra's themed coffins in the early 1950s.

Kwei came to this capital city in 1954, leaving Ghana's vast cocoa plantations to search for work in construction, says his son, Ernest Anang, owner of one of the stores.

Soon, a prominent fisherman died and his family "wanted to show he was a big man, to show how important he was," Anang says. "So my father built him a big fish."

Kwei later constructed a man-sized yellow cocoa pod in which to bury a newly deceased relative who had worked on a cocoa farm.

"Lots of people wanted these after seeing them, so my father quit construction and focused on the coffins," Anang says.

Another of his famous coffins was a Mercedes car.

But these days, Accra's taxi drivers are buried in scaled-down cars and trucks; cattle herders in startlingly realistic cows; snail vendors in huge escargots; and Christian preachers in Bibles.

A pilot may be interred in a model of a Ghana Airways plane, its wings collapsible so it will fit in the grave. A soldier can choose a camouflaged howitzer, its barrel trained on the heavens. Shoe sellers go off in oversized white "Nike-style" sneakers.

There's a huge bottle of Star Beer, a popular Ghanaian brew, for bartenders -- "or if you drink too much," notes Daniel Mensah Oblie, owner of Hello Design Coffin Works, a competitor of Anang.

Anang says he sells 80 to 100 custom caskets yearly and estimates that each of his three rivals do a similar volume.

His best year was 1996, when he sold 150 handcrafted caskets. But the price of wood has been rising as West Africa's forests are relentlessly logged, forcing Anang to boost prices -- and drive away customers.

A special casket now costs between $280 and $350. That's about twice as much as a regular casket, and it puts special coffins far out of reach of all but the wealthiest in Ghana.Anang says he has exported coffins to Europe, Australia and the United States, where Kwei's coffin in the shape of a cocoa pod, circa 1970, found its way into a San Francisco museum.

When asked what he will eventually be buried in, Anang produces a battered photograph of a large, intricately detailed carpenter's plane.

And what about Anang's father, who died in 1992? He is taking his eternal repose in a simple wooden box, Anang says.

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