Visit to a Teshie-Nungua “Fantasy Coffin” Maker
Along the West African coastline,in Ghana, there is a narrow two lane road about 20 miles long that connects the Tema Port to the capital, Accra. At about the halfway mark, in the tribal heartland of the Ga people, there is a community known as Teshie-Nungua. And although the sister towns may appear a bit rundown, this is the place that you really need to go if you want to book a first class ticket to the hereafter, which can be done by taking passage in a “Fantasy Coffin.”
Cars, sewing machines, houses, practically anything that was significant to a person in life, may be used as the inspiration for the creation of a custom made casket by one of the 3 or 4 Teshie-Nungua shops that produce them. A piece crafted by one of the artisans here will set you back between 500 and 2000 American dollars, but are a deal to die for, considering you are sure to be the envy of every soul waiting to be processed for entry through the pearly gates.
The “Fantasy Coffins” although relatively new on the scene, were born of a few of the local traditions surrounding the way funerals are “celebrated” in this part of Africa.
First of all, there is no great rush to have a ceremony after a person has passed away, and it is common for even a few years to elapse between a person’s death, and their final passage rights. In the past a body was buried and then a funeral planned and held at a later date. Nowadays, as bodies can be kept at a morgue, there is plenty of time to create an elaborate casket before the burial, which now takes place during the funeral itself.
Secondly, African funerals are about the celebration of a person’s life, rather than a bemoaning of their demise. As such, a themed coffin which symbolizes an important part of a person’s life is seen as paying tribute to the life that was lived.
Finally, a top end casket is as a great show of respect to the departed, so earning their favor. As they are now working behind the scenes in the world of the ancestors, influencing the fate of humans, it is wise to keep on their good side.
However, in the end, the coffins are as much about the the living as they are the dead. In Ghana, the quality of the casket in which one’s bones are laid to rest is a way of affirming a family’s social status more than anything else. Although few have the money to purchase a custom made coffin, even those of the most modest resources will still spring for the best quality casket they can afford when a respected member of their family passes on.
It is hard to pinpoint when the first “fantasy coffin” appeared on the scene, but is believed to be an extension of a local tradition among the Ga in which an important chiefs would be buried in their royal palanquins. There is a popular story that dates back 60 years or so that tells of a chief who died while an elaborate chair was being made for him. His family decided to have it finished, but with a twist. They had the craftsmen redesign the work so that the chair would function as a coffin.
Not far away there lived another chief who was prosperous in the cocoa business, and upon attending his colleague’s funeral was duly impressed by the chair-coffin. Not to be outdone, and with more than just a little bit of flair for the original, he commissioned a casket to be made in the image of a cocoa pod in which he was to be eventually buried. Soon it became a status symbol, and families that could afford to do so began to honor their esteemed love ones with a decidedly upscale, if not a bit macabre, “Fantasy Coffin.”