Fantasy Coffins in Ghana Explained: Origin, Types & Appeal

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If a regular wooden or metal coffin isn’t your thing, you might find something more your style in Ghana. 

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In this small, West African country, several craftspeople and small shops specialize in coffins to suit people’s unique personalities. These coffins, known as “fantasy coffins” or “figurative coffins,” come in endless shapes, sizes, and colors. 

If you’ve ever wondered about Ghana’s fantasy coffins, where they originated, and what they’re all about, keep reading. 

What are Fantasy Coffins?

Fantasy coffins are caskets that a few select craftsmen carve and paint to look like animals or objects. 

They often match the deceased’s (or their family’s) interests, character traits, or profession. The coffin often imitates something the person might see every day. Alternatively, a fantasy coffin could represent something the person wished to see in the afterlife. 

With so many things and ideas available to represent—both real and imagined—it’s no wonder there’s such a range of colorful and fantastic caskets in Ghana. 

Custom caskets 

One of the most famous fantasy caskets was in the shape of a show. Its buyers commissioned the shoe-shaped casket for their family member who was a shoemaker in life. 

Other examples of fantasy coffins that families have commissioned for their loved ones include airplanes, birds, fish, and a shallot. 

Fantasy coffins as art

Fantasy coffins have transcended their original purpose (as a resting place for the dead) and become well-known as works of art. 

The National Museum of Funeral History, as well as some art exhibits, displays many colorful caskets as works of sculpture. 

Fantasy coffin cost

In Ghana, the cost of a funeral typically exceeds the cost of a wedding in the same family. Similarly, Ghanaian families are often willing to spend a large amount of their savings on a loved one’s final resting place--their coffin. 

The cost of an elaborate custom casket often exceeds $1,000 for locals, which is impressive when you consider that most Ghanaians earn about $3 per day. 

International customers, on the other hand, can expect to pay between $5,000 and $15,000 for a custom fantasy coffin. 

ยป MORE: Keep a loved one's memory alive by creating a diamond from their ashes.

 

How Did Fantasy Coffins Come About?

Ghanaian fantasy coffins aren’t just about looking good on your way to the afterlife. Many people in Ghana hold strong beliefs about death, burial, and how one should treat a deceased family member. 

Fantasy coffins often reflect more modern interests, like a person’s profession or what they enjoy most. At the same time, however, fantasy coffins are an important part of giving the deceased the best possible send-off to the afterlife. 

Background

In Ghana, among the Ga and Fante people, most believe that death is a new beginning rather than an end. One way to envision this is to picture death as a one-way trip: there’s no coming back to this world, but “life” continues on the other side. 

It’s easy to see, then, how the people of Ghana view death and burial as such a crucial moment in a person’s life. Rather than just saying goodbye to their loved one, a family must ensure that the deceased has everything they need for the trip and their new existence.

Origin

Fantasy coffins haven’t existed for all that long, but the tradition has grown over the past 70 years. 

A royal procession

In the early 1950s, a Ghanaian village chief commanded a local carpenter to create an ornate palanquin in the shape of a cacao pod. (A palanquin is a covered platform that’s carried on each side by two or more people.) But before the chief could enjoy his new transportation, he died. 

Villagers who wanted to pay a last homage to their chief decided to use the cacao pod as a coffin. Before burying their chief, they paraded him around town in the pod, followed by a lively procession. 

A spark of inspiration

This instance had such an impact on the townspeople that many of them wished for more fantasy coffins, just like the chief had. According to local lore, Kane Kwei was a local carpenter who was deeply inspired by the parade. 

When his grandmother passed away, Kwei created a fantasy coffin-in the form of an airplane--for his departed loved one. 

Until his death in 1992, Kane Kwei was one of the leading creators of elaborate fantasy caskets on Ghana. His apprentices, including the renowned Paa Joe, carry on his tradition to this day. 

Why people want them

As already mentioned, the Ga and Fante people of Ghana believe that death is a transition to the spiritual realm, rather than the end of life entirely. Families take pride and are careful in how they treat their departed loved ones, making sure they’re equipped for the long journey. 

Some believe that a coffin that emulates a person’s life, trade, or hobbies will help that person’s spirit remember who they are on the other side. 

A funeral in Ghana is a time for mourning, but it’s also a celebration of life. Funerals are larger and more elaborate than nearly any other celebration, and every detail must be just right. A person’s prestige rides on the extravagance of their funeral and the intricate details therein. 

Additionally, many Ghanaians believe that the dead are much more powerful than the living. It’s important to stay in their good graces by honoring them and their funeral wishes

Although most Ghanaians still chose regular caskets for burial, fantasy coffins have become a fashionable and popular choice. 

Different Types of Fantasy Coffins

The shape and design of a fantasy coffin portray a great deal about the deceased for which it was designed. A custom casket can symbolize what the person did for a living, what they dreamed about and envisioned, or even their vices. 

Some fantasy coffins have specific meanings or purposes. Here are some examples. 

  • Antelope. A fantasy coffin in the shape of an antelope celebrates a person’s deep wisdom and knowledge. 
  • Eagle. Fantasy coffins shaped like eagles are traditionally reserved for people in high positions of prominence. 
  • Clan totems. Some animals, including lions and crabs, represent certain clans. The heads of those particular families may choose to be buried in a coffin shaped like their clan totem. 
  • Stools and swords. Certain shapes, including stools and swords, represent regality, magic, or priestly status. Only people with this sort of status can be buried in this type of fantasy coffin. 
  • Fish. One of the most commonly-requested types of fantasy coffin is the coffin shaped like a fish. This is because the fishing industry is so big in the region, so the fish-shaped coffin most often represents a person’s profession. 
  • Bible. A fantasy coffin shaped like a Bible is the only type of fantasy coffin allowed in a church in the country of Ghana. Bible-shaped fantasy coffins, therefore, are also a very popular choice. 
  • Proverbs. Many fantasy coffins are much less literal in form. Some evoke proverbs that are interpreted in specific ways by the Ga and Fante people. This is why you might also see fantasy coffins referred to as “proverbial coffins.” 

Creating Fantasy Coffins

Only a handful of specially-trained, skilled carpenters and artists specialize in creating fantasy caskets. They’re not something you can pick up ready-made at your local funeral home. So how are fantasy coffins created? 

Fantasy coffin apprenticeship

Fantasy coffins are exclusively made to order since every one is different. Each craftsman who specializes in the creation of these caskets employes at least one apprentice, who will carry on the tradition when their teacher retires.

Employing several apprentices allows master artists to craft several fantasy coffins at a time. And with the demand for fantasy coffins growing all the time, that’s a good thing. 

Museum fantasy coffins vs. burial coffins

Fantasy coffins have gone above and beyond funerals; they’ve entered the world of fine art. Many fantasy coffin craftsmen now sell their works to museums and collectors, in addition to creating them for burial. But a fantasy coffin that’s a work of art must be created differently than one that’s prepared for burial. 

Most coffins produced for museums are made of mahogany or other types of hardwood. This helps them withstand traveling and avoid cracking, warping, and breaking. Coffins that are made for burial are typically made of softer wood that’s more biodegradable and less pricy.  

Can You Be Buried in a Fantasy Coffins? 

In Ghana, fantasy coffins have become well-known as both an option for burying the dead and as an art form. But if you’re not from West Africa, can you order your own fantasy coffin for yourself or a family member? 

The answer is yes, you can order your own fantasy casket--but it will cost you. While fantasy coffin-makers charge Ghanaians $1,000 for their own custom design, foreign buyers can expect to pay between $5,000 and $15,000. 

So if you’ve always dreamed of being buried in an elaborate coffin shaped like a shoe, an airplane, or a can of Coca-Cola, it might be time to start saving. 

If you're looking to learn more about coffins and caskets, read our guides on materials for caskets and how much caskets usually cost.


Sources

  1. “A life well lived: fantasy coffins from Ghana.” National Museum of Funeral History. www.nmfh.org/exhibits/permanent-exhibits/a-life-well-lived-fantasy-coffins-from-ghana
  2. Barbier, Laetitia. “Morbid Monday: Buried in a Lion - The Fabulous Tradition of Ghana Figurative Coffins.” Atlas Obscura. 25 March 2013.  www.atlasobscura.com/articles/morbid-monday-buried-in-a-lion-the-figurative-coffin-tradition-of-ghana
  3. Amah, Munachim and Uanikhehi, Ized. “Celebrating death in style: Ghana's fantasy coffins.”  CNN.  27 November 2018. www.cnn.com/2017/12/29/africa/ghana-fantasy-coffin/index.html
  4. Ochieng, Akinyi. “The Fantasy Coffins of Ghana.” Roads and Kingdoms. 22 January 2016. roadsandkingdoms.com/travel-guide/accra/the-fantasy-coffins-of-ghana/
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