British Museum blog

London, a world city in 20 objects: eagle coffin from Ghana

Eagle coffinFiona Sheales, British Museum

The past 60 years have seen the emergence and development of a dynamic and unique art form in coastal towns situated close to Accra, the capital of Ghana in West Africa.

This trend began in 1951 when two carpenters decided to honour their late grand-mother’s dream to fly by burying her in a coffin shaped in the form of an aeroplane. Soon other families began to commission other coffins that represented the life achievements or aspirations of deceased relatives, or characterised aspects of their personality.

Many coffins take the form of traditional status symbols such as this eagle which is believed to have been inspired by the eagle-shaped palanquins used to carry chiefs on important public occasions. A coffin of this shape would therefore be suitable for the burial of a man of some social standing in his community.

Eagle coffin

Eagle coffin

This eagle coffin was made in 2000 in the workshop of Paa Joe (full name Joseph Tetteh Ashong) by a team of specialist carpenters. Paa Joe was one of the first craftsmen to make representational coffins, which are all hand-made on commission. Plans, photographs and sketches are rarely used, instead the components are drawn directly on to the wood which is then sawn out, planed and painted. In some cases up to 20 individually cut and shaped pieces of wood are required to form the shape of the coffin, depending on the model ordered. The eagle coffin’s body, lid and base are carved from the hardwood of the wawa tree (triplochiton scleraxylon) which does not crack and resists attacks from insects. The two wings are carved from separate pieces of wood and are joined to the body using metal hinges which allow them to be folded down flat or to be extended.

In Ghana, death is traditionally viewed as a transition from the world of the living to that of the ancestors. Ancestors are believed to exert influence and power over their living relatives so it is important to show them love and respect. One of the ways of doing this is to bury deceased family members in expensive coffins and hold big funerals. On the day of the funeral the deceased is processed through town to the graveside and large crowds of mourners will have the opportunity to see the coffin for the first time.

Although traditional subjects such as the eagle remain popular, casket choices reflect changing fashions and social aspirations. Modern consumer goods such as laptops and mobile phones provide the models for innovative new coffin shapes.

The popularity of these so-called fantasy coffins continues to grow and has stimulated a thriving industry in Ghana. Thanks to the Internet, fantasy coffins can now be ordered online and are exported all over the world to meet the needs of the diasporic Ghanaian community.

This was first published in the London Evening Standard 15 November 2012.

The Eagle coffin from Ghana is on display in Room 24: Living and Dying

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7 Responses - Comments are closed.

  1. Metty Markwei says:

    Reblogged this on The Kente Weaver and commented:
    Only in Ghana …

    Like

  2. Thierry Secretan says:

    To Fiona Sheales. Paa Joe’s full is Joseph Tetteh-Ashong (not Tettah-Ashong). Could this be corrected by sheer respect for this master carpenter? The eagle coffin that belongs to the BM is NOT made out of wawa who precisely would be destroyed by the insects within the wood. Since 1989 when the Centre Pompidou ordered 7 coffins from Kane Kwei and Paa Joe, an order I had the pride to recommend and supervise, it was decided to carve these coffins in emele wood, a local hard wood as hard as mahogany but lighter, cheaper, and free of any type of insect. Ever since coffins exported are made out of emele. Wawa is only used for coffins actually buried in Ghana. I would also appreciate that a footnote renders justice to the source of your information concerning the origin of the figurative coffins trend starting in 1951 with the airplane built for Kane Kwei’s grand mother. It took a long search, many interviews and corroborations to succeed tracing the origin of the trend before publishing it in my book “Going into Darkness”. Thierry Secretan (Thames&Hudson. 1995. London). Thank you in advance.

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    • Thierry Secretan.

      I am grateful to you for getting in touch via the blog to point out the spelling error in Paa Joe’s name, absolutely no disrespect for the artist was intended. I also thank you for pointing out that the wood used for making display coffins is not in fact wawa wood. The information that you so kindly supplied in relation to this will be added to the Museum’s database for future reference. Not being an expert on Ghanaian fantasy coffins I sourced contextual information from a variety of texts after being approached to write this article. A creditation for the information regarding the origins of this coffin-making tradition will be added as per your request. I hope you will accept my apologies for the omission, it was entirely unintentional.

      Fiona Sheales, British Museum

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      • Thierry Secretan says:

        Fiona Sheales

        Thank you for taking into account my observations. And by the way, my name is Thierry and not Tierry. No disrespect for me I am sure but when writing for such a respected institution as the BM one expects certain standards of excellence to be maintained, at least in the spelling of names and the quoting of sources.

        TS

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    • Thanks Thierry. The spelling of Paa Joe’s full name has now been updated.

      David Prudames, British Museum

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      • Thierry Secretan says:

        The resume is still incorrect about the wawa wood precisely full of insects and only used for coffins buried in Ghana. your blog is amateurish, written by non specialists and show poor respect for the institution that the BM is supposed to be.
        TS

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  3. JM Rousset says:

    More precise info on the origin of those coffins with a lot of illustrations: ghanacoffin.com

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