Rest in Fish


Making art out of the coffins of those recently departed, local practices in Ghana turn death into a spectacle.

Ghanaians have lively traditions in their approach to death with funky, colorful coffins that look more like artistic installations from Andy Warhol's Factory than objects used in a death ritual. The origin of the tradition has been lost in folklore, but it may have started with a fish.

To most Ghanaians, it all began when a unknown fisherman asked to be buried in a coffin shaped like a fish. The idea struck a chord, as while most local religious practices were Christian on paper, many traditions and beliefs were left over from Ghana's Animist past.

Today, each coffin is built to represent the occupation, status and identity of its respective dweller. In some cases, the coffins are built to represent the dreams those who passed away could never achieve. Someone who has never flown, for example, is sometimes buried in a wooden jumbo jet.

The coffins on these pages were all made for fishermen: crab fishermen, tuna fishermen and so on. In each case, the animals that gave the fallen their livelihood now offer the fishermen a final service by carrying them to the other side.

More than sixty years later, the unknown fisherman's last wish is flourishing as one of the liveliest artistic traditions in Africa. Local coffin-makers are getting orders from overseas, museums in Antwerp, New York and Houston have each displayed the coffins and some Ghana tourist shops now offer coffins to western tourists, should they decide to die in style.

It’s certainly a great way to go, but it is a pity all that effort goes into something that gets buried as soon as it's complete.