Dissertation abebuu .pdf



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Abebuu%adekai!(design(coffins)(in(Ghana:(
A"matter"of"life"and"death!
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!!!Sophie!Durrans!
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Trinity!College,!University!of!Cambridge!
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Social!Anthropology!Undergraduate!Dissertation!
May!2013!

Declaration!
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Brief!synopsis!of!the!contents!of!the!dissertation!
!
The!structure!of!my!study!follows!the!recognized!‘phases’!in!a!coffin’s!life!
(Kopytoff!1986).!Part!I!describes!the!making!of!coffins,!and!how!coffinQmakers!
interacted!with!clients!when!receiving!commissions.1!When!the!busQshaped!
coffin!left!the!workshop,!it!was!not!an!alienated!commodity!but!had!been!
invested!with!moral!and!personal!meanings!by!its!maker(s).!Part!II!shifts!to!the!
funeral!context,!comprising!a!Friday!night!wake!and!Saturday!funeral!ceremony.!
The!use!of!photography!was!an!important!medium!helping!people!remember!the!
funeral,!the!coffin!and,!most!importantly,!the!deceased!person.!In!Part!III,!I!focus!
on!the!burial!of!the!coffin!itself.!Here,!I!apply!Gell’s!more!active!model!of!an!
object’s!biography,!where!a!coffin!‘interacts’!with!the!people!it!comes!into!
contact!with!(Hoskins!2006:!76).!Drawing!on!Gell’s!application!of!Strathern’s!
theory!of!‘partible!persons’!to!the!agency!of!objects,!I!argue!that!aspects!of!
multiple!persons!can!be!invested!in!abebuu%adekai.!!
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I%declare%that%this%dissertation%is%substantially%my%won%work%and%does%not%contain%
material%that%has%already%been%used%to%any%substantial%extent%for%a%comparable%
purpose.%Where%reference%is%made%to%the%works%of%others%the%extent%to%which%such%
work%has%been%used%is%indicated%and%duly%acknowledged%in%the%text.%
!
Signed:!________________________!
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A!signed!declaration!of!the!word!count!of!the!dissertation:!
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Word!Count!(max.!10000):!_____________!
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Acknowledgements!
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I!am!greatly!indebted!to!the!following!groups!and!individuals!for!their!support!
and!assistance!throughout!my!work!towards!this!dissertation:!Trinity!College!
Projects!Fund!for!providing!financial!assistance!to!enable!me!to!conduct!my!
fieldwork!in!Ghana;!my!supervisor,!Jessica!Johnson,!for!her!thoughtful!feedback!
and!encouragement;!JeanQMichel!Rousset,!for!his!invaluable!advice!and!
assistance!in!arranging!my!stay!in!Ghana;!Eric!Adjetey!Anang!for!his!kindness,!
helpfulness!and!hospitality!throughout!my!stay;!Eric!Kpakpo!for!his!concern!and!
assistance;!and!finally!my!family,!for!their!constant!support.!
!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
1!While!women!may!also!be!buried!in!abebuu%adekai,!my!examples!focus!on!design!coffins!for!

men.!CoffinQmakers!claimed!it!was!not!uncommon!for!females!to!be!buried!in!design!coffins,!but!
it!depended!on!their!profession!and!status!while!alive.!!

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Contents!
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List%of%Maps%and%List%of%Figures%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%i
Setting!the!scene!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!1!

A!brief!history!of!abebuu%adekai!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!4!
Craftsmanship!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!6!
Entering!the!field!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!7!
‘Receptacles!of!proverbs’!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!7!
A!Question!of!Translation!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!8!
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Part!I:!The!Workshop!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!10!
Carving!Coffins!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!11!!!!!!!
Creative!Designing!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!12!
Commissioning!coffins!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!13!
Rejected!Coffins!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!14!
An!inalienable!commodity?!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!16!
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Part!II:!The!Funeral!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!19!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
Leaving!the!workshop!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!20!
Incurring!debts!and!Fulfilling!Obligations!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!21!
The!wake!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!23!
!‘Saturday!is!for!funerals’!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!27!
Visualising!the!coffin!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!28!
Religious!perspectives!of!abebuu!adekai!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!30!

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Part!III:!The!Burial!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!34!
Entering!the!cemetery!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!35!
Smashing!the!Coffin!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!36!
‘Partible!persons’!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!38!
MalangganQfigures!and!Abebbu%Adekai!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!39!
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Conclusion!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!42!
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Bibliography!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!44!

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List%of%Maps%

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Map.!1.!!!!Google!Map!showing!Accra,!Tema!and!Dodowa!in!Greater!Accra!!!!!5!
Map.!2.!!!!Google!Map!showing!coffin!workshops!between!Accra!and!Tema!!!!
!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!(from!left!to!right):!Eric’s!Carpentry!Workshop!(Eric!K.);!Hello!!!
!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!Design!Coffin!Workshop!(Daniel!Mensah);!Kane!Kwei!Coffin!!
!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!Workshop!(Eric!A.);!Paa!Willy’s!Coffin!Workshop!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!5!
Map.!3.!!!!Map!showing!regions!of!Ghana!(Source:!User:Golbez,!!
!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!Wikipedia)!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!6!
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List%of%Figures%
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Fig.!1.!!!!Eric!A.!(left)!and!Adjei!(right)!building!the!spider!coffin,!with!an!!
!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!onlooker!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!13!
Fig.!2.!!!!Rejected!coffin!intended!for!fetish!priest!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!15!
Fig.!3.!!!!BusVshaped!coffin!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!16!
Fig.!4.!!!!Contact!details!on!busVshaped!coffin!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!17!
Fig.!5.!!!!Warning!sign!on!beer!bottle!coffin!in!Eric!K.’s!workshop!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!18!
Fig.!6.!!!!OSA!busVshaped!coffin!being!loaded!into!Land!Rover,!with!the!!!
!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!deceased’s!eldest!son!!watching!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!21!
Fig.!7.!!Funeral!programme!for!Papa!Nii!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!25!
Fig.!8.!!Taking!photographs!of!Papa!Nii!layingVinVstate!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!26!
Fig.!9.!!Cameraman!filming!outside!the!viewing!room!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!27!
Fig.!10.!!Unfinished!BibleVshaped!coffin!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!31!
Fig.!11.!!Pastor!reading!from!the!Bible!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!33!
Fig.!12.!!Carrying!coffin!to!the!grave!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!35!
Fig.!13.!!HeartVshaped!festoon!of!ribbons!as!funeral!offering!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!36!
Fig.!14.!!BusVshaped!coffin!after!being!smashed!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!37!

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Introduction*
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I!stood!back!to!admire!the!Mercedes2Benz,!a!five2door!limousine!with!black!and!white!
interior,!silver!wheel!arches!and!a!customized!number!plate.!I!was!not!in!a!car!
showroom,!but!at!the!London!Southbank!Centre!exhibition!Boxed:'Fabulous'Coffins'from'
UK'and'Ghana.!The!number!plate!read!‘Paa!Joe!GH’,!referring!to!the!Ghanaian!maker!of!
this!Mercedes2Benz2shaped!coffin.!While!the!practice!of!design!coffin2making!began!in!
Ghana,!it!has!become!a!wider!phenomenon,!with!European!museums!commissioning!
coffins!for!exhibitions,!and!a!Nottingham2based!company!attempting!to!create!a!UK!
equivalent.1!Ghanaian!coffin2makers!have!become!internationally!known!craftsmen!
with!the!help!of!websites,!social!media!and!international!‘agents’.2!!
!
!!Scholars!have!considered!these!coffins!mainly!from!an!international!perspective!as!
exhibits!(Burns!1974;!Vogel!1992;!Soppelsa!1995;!Spring!et'al'2001),!yet!several!
academics!refer!to!‘fantasy!coffins’!as!examples!of!African!art!(Barber!1987)!or!in!
relation!to!funerary!practice!(De!Witte!2001;!Lee!and!Vaughan!2008).!Secretan!(1995),!
Bonetti!(2007,!2009,!2009a,!2010)!and!Tschumi!(2008)!acknowledge!the!coffins’!links!
to!the!Western!art!world,!but!also!try!to!understand!their!local!meanings!as!significant!
aspects!of!social!life.!!
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!!Design!coffins!are!known!locally!as!abebuu'adekai!in!the!Ga!language,!translated!as!
‘receptacles!of!proverbs’!(Bonetti!2010).!In!this!study!I!trace!their!temporal!
development,!showing!how!they!are!invested!with!new!meanings!throughout!their!life!
cycle.!These!coffins!represent!a!person’s!status!or!profession;!for!example,!a!fisherman!
may!be!buried!in!a!fish2shaped!coffin,!or!a!drinks!vendor!in!one!shaped!like!a!bottle.!
While!increasing!family!and!personal!status!may!play!a!part!in!ostentatious!funeral!
displays,!many!complex!factors!are!involved,!such!as!moral!obligations!to!kin,!
honouring!the!dead!and!pleasing!ancestors.!!
*
!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
1!‘Crazy!Coffins’!in!Nottingham,!like!coffin2makers!in!Ghana,!create!a!combination!of!design!coffins!and!
traditional,!box2shaped!ones.!These!are!displayed!on!their!website:!‘www.crazycoffins.co.uk’!
2!Eric!A.’s!website!‘www.ghanacoffin.com’!lists!his!contacts!in!Albania,!Brazil,!Belgium,!France,!Ghana,!

Italy,!Mauritania,!Nigeria,!Norway,!Poland!and!Russia,!Spain,!UK!and!USA.!
2!Eric!A.’s!website!‘www.ghanacoffin.com’!lists!his!contacts!in!Albania,!Brazil,!Belgium,!France,!Ghana,!

Italy,!Mauritania,!Nigeria,!Norway,!Poland!and!Russia,!Spain,!UK!and!USA.!
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1!

!!!To!contextualize!what!follows,!I!begin!with!a!historical!overview!of!the!local!origins!of!
abebuu'adekai.!I!then!discuss!how!I!conducted!research!in!the!field!and!the!ambiguous!
definitions!of!local!terms.!This!reveals!some!of!the!complexities!of!Ghanaian!design!
coffins,!whose!varied!forms!and!shared!features!are!best!analysed!by!focusing!on!a!
particular!example:!a!bus2shaped!coffin!that!I!observed!from!its!production!in!the!
workshop,!through!its!display!and!use!at!a!funeral,!to!its!burial!and!destruction!in!the!
grave.!This!trajectory!traces!the!‘social!life’!of!the!coffin!(Appadurai!1986).!!
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!!!The!structure!of!this!account!follows!successive!phases!in!a!coffin’s!‘life’!(Kopytoff!
1986).*Part!I!describes!the!making!of!coffins,!and!how!coffin2makers!interacted!with!
clients!when!receiving!commissions.3*When!the!bus2shaped!coffin!left!the!workshop,!it!
was!not!an!alienated!commodity!but!had!been!invested!with!moral!and!personal!
meanings!by!its!maker(s).!Part!II!considers!the!funeral!phase,!comprising!a!Friday!night!
wake!and!Saturday!funeral!ceremony.!Photography!was!an!important!medium!helping!
people!remember!the!funeral,!the!coffin!and!most!significantly!the!deceased!person.!In!
Part!III,!I!focus!on!the!burial!of!the!coffin!itself.!Observing!how!a!coffin!‘interacts’!with!
the!people!who!come!into!contact!with!it!(Hoskins!2006:!76),!I!draw!on!Gell’s!model!of!
an!object’s!biography!(Gell!1998),!and!Strathern’s!theory!of!partible!persons!(Strathern!
1988),!to!argue!that!an!abebuu'adeka!can!be!understood!as!an!investment!of!multiple,!
partible!persons.!
!

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!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
3!While!women!may!also!be!buried!in!abebuu'adekai,!my!examples!focus!on!design!coffins!for!men.!Coffin2

makers!claimed!it!was!not!uncommon!for!females!to!be!buried!in!design!coffins,!but!this!depended!on!
their!profession!and!status!while!alive.!!

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2!

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Setting*the*scene*
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3!

A*Brief*History*of*Abebuu%Adekai%!
Abebuu'adekai'were!first!created!by!Ga2speaking!carpenters!in!Greater!Accra!around!
1960!(Bonetti!2009).!According!to!the!2010!census,!7.3%!of!Ghanaians!identified!
themselves!as!part!of!the!Ga2Dangme!ethnic!group,!yet!less!than!half,!3.4%!of!the!
population,!spoke!Ga!as!their!first!language.4!The!area!has!become!increasingly!
urbanised!since!the!1960s,5!and!the!Teshie2Nungua!Road,!which!links!the!capital!to!
Teshie,!is!one!of!the!busiest!in!the!country!(Tschumi!2008:!54).!Established!in!Teshie,!
the!first!coffin!workshop,!‘Kane!Kwei’s!Carpentry!Workshop’!is!now!run!by!Kane’s!
grandson,!Eric!Adjetey!Anang!(henceforth!Eric!A.).!Other!carpenters!built!workshops!in!
the!surrounding!towns:!Eric!Kpanko!(henceforth!Eric!K.)!and!Daniel!Mensah!in!Labadi,!
and!Paa!Willy!in!Nungua!(Map!2).!From!the!Teshie2Nungua!Road,!workshops!have!
spread!more!widely!to!Greater!Accra,!Volta,!Central!and!Eastern!regions!(Map!3).6*Many!
senior*design!coffin2makers!first!trained!at!Kane!Kwei!workshop!under!Paa!Joe.!During!
my!time!in!Ghana,!I!visited!coffin2makers!in!Teshie,!Labadi!and!Nungua,!as!well!as!
Orlando!Adantey,!who!worked!in!Dodowa.7*
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!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

4!Figures!from!2010!census!2!https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the2world2

factbook/geos/gh.html!
5!The!2012!population!of!Nungua!was!84,!119.!This!is!a!large!increase!from!29,146!people!in!1984.!

(Statistics!from!World!Gazetteer,!1984!census!and!2012!calculation).!
6!I!observed!two!other!coffin!workshops,!one!near!Cape!Coast!(Central!Region),!the!other!near!Ada!Foah!

(Eastern!Region),!and!was!told!of!yet!another!in!Volta.!However,!these!workshops!do!not!seem!to!be!as!
successful!as!in!the!urbanized!Teshie2Nungua!area.!Coffin2makers!claim!there!are!no!workshops!in!the!
Northern!region.!Islam!prevails!there!and!in!the!Upper!East!region,!whilst!the!rest!of!the!country!is!
mainly!Christian.!!!
7!Due!to!the!international!public!status!of!coffin2makers,!I!have!chosen!to!use!their!real!names.!*

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4!

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Map!1.!Google!Map!showing!Accra,!Tema!and!Dodowa!in!Greater!Accra.!!

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Map!2.!Google!Map!showing!coffin!workshops!between!Accra!and!Tema!(from!left!to!right):!Eric’s!
Carpentry!Workshop!(Eric!K.);!Hello!!Design!Coffin!Workshop!(Daniel!Mensah);!Kane!Kwei!Coffin!
Workshop!(Eric!A.);!Paa!Willy’s!Coffin!Workshop.!

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Map!3.!!Map!showing!regions!of!Ghana!(Source:!User:Golbez,!Wikipedia).!

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Craftsmanship*
Although!abebuu'adekai'production!only!began'after!Ghana’s!independence!in!1957,!Ga!
practiced!carpentry!well!before!this.!Basel!missionaries!saw!manual!labour!as!essential!
to!‘Presbytarian!masculinity’,!and!in!1850,!set!up!a!workshop!for*training!carpenters!
and!stonemasons!(Tschumi!2008;!Miescher!2005:!48).!The!Ga!ranked!among!the!finest!
craftsmen!in!the!region!(Tschumi!2008).!However,!it!is!unclear!who!first!made!design!
coffins.!Tschumi!claims!a!man!called!Ataa!Oko!made!them!around!1945,8*whilst!Kane!
Kwei!favours!another,!Ataa!Owoo!(Secretan!1995!cited!in!Bonetti!2010:!18).!An!elderly!
man!from!Teshie!told!Bonetti!that!“Owoo!taught!and!worked!on!graphic!design!and!on!
constructing!a!series!of!projects!with!a!traveling!theatre!troupe!in!1930”!(2010:!22).!In!
her!study!of!Yoruba!theatre!in!Nigeria,!Barber!(2003)!notes!a!close!connection!between!
theatre!work!and!skilled!manual!trade.!It!is!possible!that!Ata!Owoo!was!prompted!to!
apply!his!design!and!carpentry!skills!to!the!creation!of!coffins.!!
!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
8!Tschumi’s!website!(http://www.regulatschumi.ch)!lists!the!coffin2makers!she!has!worked!with,!and!
reports!that!Ataa!Oko!claims!he!began!making!design!coffins!around!1945,!but!was!not!as!successful!as!
his!competitors.!!

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6!

Entering*the*Field!
My!fieldwork!lasted!five!weeks!between!July2August!2012.!For!the!first!week,!I!stayed!in!
Nungua,!a!small!town!18!kilometres!east!of!Accra.!During!the!next!four!weeks,!I!
volunteered!at!an!orphanage!in!Dodowa,!capital!of!the!Dangame!West!district,!38!
kilometres!northeast!of!Accra.!!
!
!!!My!research!methods!combined!semi2structured!interviews!and!participant!
observation.!I!interviewed!five!coffin2makers!fluent!in!English!and!witnessed!
interactions!between!masters!and!apprentices!in!workshops.!In!the!urbanised!areas!of!
Teshie,!Nungua!and!La,!workshops!had!up!to!nine!apprentices,!whereas!Orlando’s!
workshop!in!Dodowa!had!only!one.9!I!also!attended!a!funeral!in!Labadi,!where!I!spoke!
with!the!family!of!the!deceased!and!funeral!guests.!Additionally,!I!spent!time!with!young!
people!in!Dodowa,!playing!games,!teaching,!or!assisting!with!everyday!activities!–!!‘deep!
hanging!out’!(Geertz:!1998).!All!children!spoke!English!fluently,10!and!the!weekly!church!
services!were!also!conducted!in!English.!Their!strong!Christian!beliefs!led!to!
informative!discussions!about!death,!the!afterlife!and!religion.!As!I!will!elaborate,!these!
opinions!enhanced!my!understanding!of!the!complexity!between!Christian!and!
‘traditional’!beliefs!among!these!young!people!in!a!peri2urban!town!in!Ghana.**
*
*

‘Receptacles*of*Proverbs’!
My!first!challenge!was!how!to!refer!to!these!coffins!when!interviewing!coffin2makers.!In!
the!West,!they!are!best!known!as!‘fantasy!coffins’!and!have!been!displayed!in!
exhibitions!under!this!name.11!Other!terms!have!been!used,!such!as!‘fabulous!coffins’!for!
the!Southbank!exhibition,!and!‘thematic!boxes’!for!a!website!selling!African!products.12!
The!few!anthropologists!who!have!written!on!this!topic!have!used!different!
terminology.!Secretan!(1995)!describes!them!as!‘fantastic!coffins’,!while!Tschumi!
(2009)!prefers!‘figurative!coffins’.!Bonetti!(2010)!uses!the!vernacular!term!abebuu'
!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
9!The!apprentices!had!left!school!early!and!generally!had!a!poor!level!of!English!compared!to!their!
masters.!
10!While!all!the!children!spoke!English!when!talking!directly!to!me,!they!often!spoke!to!each!other!in!Twi.!
11!The!Sainsbury!Centre!for!Visual!Arts!(University!of!East!Anglia)!displayed!what!they!called!a!Ghanaian!

‘fantasy!coffin’!in!an!exhibition!in!2011.!The!British!Museum,!on!the!other!hand,!has!avoided!this!term.!
One!label!described!a!coffin!as!‘coffin!in!the!shape!of!an!eagle’!(part!of!a!permanent!collection!sold!to!the!
British!Museum!by!Paa!Joe!in!2000).!
12!http://www.eshopafrica.com/acatalog/Artisans.html!

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adekai,!which!she!translates!literally!from!Ga!as!‘receptacles!of!proverbs’.!Abebuu'means!
both!‘proverbial!expression’!and!‘illustration’.!She!suggests!the!coffins!are!a!type!of!
visual!storytelling!rather!than!simply!functional!containers!(Bonetti!2009),!and!borrows!
Gell’s!theory!of!agency!to!argue!that!the!object!becomes!an!‘agent!of!stories’!(Bonetti!
2007:!178).!The!‘social!life’!of!a!coffin!(Appadurai!1986)!can!be!traced!as!a!dynamic!
career,!repeatedly!invested!with!new!meanings!by!different!people!and!in!varying!
contexts.!As!I!will!suggest,!the!design!of!the!coffin!channels!the!narrative!focus!from!the!
deceased!as!a!unique!individual!to!his/her!social!profession.!The!coffin2maker’s!own!
craftsmanship,!how!the!coffin!is!viewed,!handled!and!buried,!and!participation!in!the!
funeral!itself!are!aspects!of!how!the!coffin!and!the!deceased!are!collectively!
manipulated!and!experienced.!
!
!!!In!the!Greater!Accra!region,!local!coffin2makers!and!teachers!offer!varying!
interpretations!of!the!term!abebuu'adekai.'A!retired!schoolteacher!explained!‘abebuu’!as!
a!deception:!something!that!looks!like!something!else.!He!translated!this!into!English!as!
‘proverbial!coffins’,!or!proverbs!for!‘very!important!people’.!However,!a!receptacle'is!not!
the!same!as!an!illustration.!If!the!adeka'is!a!receptacle,!it!contains!the!proverb!itself,!
perhaps!in!the!form!of!a!human!body.!Wendl!(2001)!explores!a!similar!idea!through!his!
study!of!photos!in!Ghana,!arguing!that!some!bodily!postures!and!photographic!gestures!
‘are!meant!to!visualize!proverbs’!(2001:!277).!Gyekye!(1996)!argues!that!wisdom!is!
expressed!in!Akan13!proverbs,!one!of!which!states!‘it!is!only!a!fool!to!whom!the!proverb!
is!explained’.!Visualizing!proverbs!in!photographs!may!be!a!way!to!convey!their!wisdom!
or!social!status.!However,!if!the!adeka!is!representative,!it!may!be!a!visual!illustration!of!
a!proverb.!But!what!any!one!proverb!may!be!is!deliberately!ambiguous.!!
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A*Question*of*Translation*
While!proverbs!are!a!common!theme!in!African!anthropology,!translating!abebuu'adekai!
as!‘receptacles!of!proverbs’!is!only!one!possible!interpretation.!Eric!K.,!a!Ga2speaking!
coffin!maker,!interpreted!the!term!differently,!with!no!reference!to!proverbs.!He!
literally!translated!abebuu!adekai!as!‘box;!the!one!who!dies’,!but!a!better!translation!
!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
13!The!Akan!are!the!largest!ethnic!group!in!Ghana,!representing!45.7%!of!the!population!according!to!the!

2010!census.!Akan!subgroups!include!Agona,!Akuapem,!Akyem,!Asante,!Fante.!Kwahu!and!Wassa.!
(https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the2world2factbook/geos/gh.html)!

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8!

may!be!‘a!death!box’.!However,!in!discussions,!he!glossed!them!in!English!as!‘design!
coffins’.!!This!translation!seemed!more!suitable!than!‘fantasy!coffins’,!a!term!I!had!not!
heard!in!Ghana!despite!its!popularity!elsewhere,!for!these!coffins!were!not!fantasies,!but!
indicated!the!status!or!profession!of!the!deceased,!such!as!the!bus2shaped!coffin!for!a!
bus!driver!I!will!later!describe.*Learning!from!Bonetti’s!(2010)!experience,!I!avoided!the!
term!‘fantasy!coffins’,!as!each!time!she!used!this!Western!phrase!she!had!a!clear!sense!
that!she!was!missing!important!information!(2010:!22).!Although!coffin2makers!usually!
referred!to!themselves!as!‘craftsmen’!rather!than!‘artists’,!they!acknowledged!an!aspect!
of!design!in!their!constructions.14!This!is!evident!as!Daniel!Mensah!named!his!studio!
‘Hello!!Design!Coffin!Workshops’.!!
!
!!!During!my!discussions!with!informants!in!Dodowa,!I!realised!that!many!people!in!the!
Greater!Accra!region!were!unfamiliar!with!abebuu'adekai.!This!may!have!been!
associated!with!the!social!status!of!the!families!who!commissioned!them,!a!point!to!
which!I!will!return.!I!attempted!to!describe!the!coffins!using!a!mixture!of!Twi!and!
English.!Adeka!(plural:!adekai)!means!‘box’!or!in!specific!contexts!‘coffin’!in!both!Ga!and!
Twi.!In!the!following!discussion,!I!refer!to!abebuu'adekai'and!design!coffins!
interchangeably.*While!terminology!and!translation!are!open!to!interpretation,!certain!
phrases!may!be!more!suited!to!particular!contexts,!be!it!a!coffin!workshop,!a!funeral,!an!
orphanage,!or!an!overseas!museum.!!
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!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
14!The!Southbank!Centre!exhibition!‘Boxed:!Fabulous!Coffins!from!UK!and!Ghana’,!had!a!sign!stating:!‘Yet!
unlike!the!Paa!Joe!workshop!in!Ghana,!the!30!employees!of!Crazy!Coffins![based!in!Nottingham]!do!not!
see!themselves!as!artists:!“The!only!artists!among!us!are!the!clients!themselves.!Each!one!of!them!has!a!
vision!of!how!a!funeral!should!be.!Each!client!is!his!or!her!own!theatre!director.!We!ourselves!play!a!
subordinate!part,!just!as,!in!conventional!theatre,!the!carpenters!do!who!make!up!the!sets”.’!

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Part*I*
The*workshop*
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Carving*Coffins*
Focusing!on!activities!in!the!coffin!workshop!illuminates!the!relationship!between!
coffin2makers!and!their!products.*Workshops!typically!took!a!similar!form,!with!a!
master!coffin2maker!running!the!workshop!with!the!help!of!at!least!one!apprentice.!
Orlando!in!Dodowa!received!fewer!commissions!than!the!workshops!along!the!Teshie2
Nungua!Road.!Those!commissioning!design!coffins!typically!had!a!stable!job!with!a!fixed!
income.!Teshie2Nungua!residents!were!familiar!with!design!coffins.!When!I!asked!a!Ga2
speaking!taxi!driver!how!many!design!coffin!funerals!he!had!attended,!he!exclaimed!“A!
thousand!and!one!”,!explaining,!“In!Ghana,!if!you!die,!everybody!wants!to!go!and!see!the!
coffin!they!bury!you!in”.!In!contrast,!one!fish!seller!in!Dodowa!had!never!heard!of!
abebuu'adekai.!This!could!suggest!an!ethnolinguistic!and!urban/peri2urban!divide.!
Design!coffins!may!be!more!accessible!to!those!working!in!the!formal!economy!in!urban!
areas,!yet!only!a!small!section!of!the!Greater!Accra!population!commission!design!
coffins!compared!to!conventional!rectangular2shaped!ones.!Tschumi!(2008)!reports!
that!Paa!Joe!produces!85!coffins!a!year;!two2thirds!traditional!and!one2third!
‘representational’!(2008:!55).!!
!
!!!Each!workshop!was!open2air!and!visitors!could!freely!wander!in,!although!this!was!
fairly!uncommon,!and!the!workshop!remained!a!private!space!for!coffin2makers!to!
practice!their!trade.!In!his!study!of!Cameroonian!woodwork!apprenticeship,!Argenti!
(2002)!notes!that!most!people!do!not!submit!to!a!formal!apprenticeship,!yet!manage!to!
carve!with!the!same!degree!of!skill!as!demonstrated!by!apprenticed!carvers!(2002:!
497).!Nonetheless,!apprenticeship!is!the!only!route!into!the!coffin!business!in!Ghana.!As!
Eric!K.!explained:!
!
There’s!a!trick!in!this!business.!This!business!is!not!like!normal!furniture.!When!
you!make!furniture,!you!go!to!the!woods!where!they!cut!the!parts!for!a!chair!–!they!
make!the!form!for!you.!An!apprenticeship!takes!six!months!or!one!year!in!the!
furniture!business.!If!you!spend!only!one!year!in!the!coffin!business,!and!your!
master!says!you!can!go!–!there’s!no!way!you!can!do!it!well.!If!you!spend!more!
years,!it!is!good!for!you.!All!the!time!I!stayed!there![under!his!master!Paa!Joe]!I!was!
still!learning!something.!It’s!good!for!you!to!stay!long!–!you!get!more!ideas.!

'

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11!

!!!It!was!not!easy!to!become!an!established!coffin2maker.!Eric!K.!said!that!
apprenticeships!typically!lasted!four!years,!but!the!master!would!let!you!stay!longer!if!
you!were!‘a!good!character’.!A!coffin2maker!was!more!than!just!a!good!carpenter:!he!
had!to!have!a!positive!attitude,!work!hard!and!be!technically!innovative.!!
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Creative!Designing!
For!repetitive!designs,!coffin2makers!rarely!worked!from!images!or!sketches.!Instead,!
the!shape!was!drawn!directly!onto!wood,!then!sawn,!planed!and!painted.!For!locally!
commissioned!coffins,!a!soft!wood!was!used,!cut!from!a!wawa!tree!(Triplochiton'
scleraxylon)15,!a!Twi!term!meaning!‘large!tree’.!For!exhibitions!abroad,!a!more!expensive!
durable!hard!wood!was!selected.16!
!
!!!A!new!shape!might!elicit!a!different!approach!to!design.!During!my!fieldwork,*Eric!A.!
was!commissioned!to!make!a!spider2shaped!coffin!for!a!film!to!be!shot!in!Ghana.!He!had!
never!made!this!shape!before,!and!had!only!ten!days!to!complete!it,!working!from!an!
anatomical!drawing!and!photograph!of!a!spider!acquired!online.!Eric!A.!explained!that!if!
a!new!shape!was!created,!he!took!charge.!However,!there!was!always!an!apprentice!
watching!how!Eric!A.!and!the!senior!apprentice!were!making!the!coffin.!One!apprentice!
even!used!his!body!to!mimic!a!spider,!arching!his!back!and!extending!his!arms!to!imitate!
its!movements.!This!action!showed!a!creative!thought!process!–!building!a!coffin!so!
accurately!that!it!appeared!to!have!the!ability!to!move!like!a!real!spider.!Such!embodied!
skills!and!theatrical!gestures!may!even!support!the!idea!that!design!coffins!have!roots!in!
both!theatre!and!carpentry.!The!apprentice’s!movements!not!only!helped!to!construct!a!
coffin;!they!also!contributed!to!the!formation!of!a!successful!coffin2maker.!!!
!

!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
15!A!tropical!tree!species!found!in!Ghana,!Nigeria,!Cameroon!and!Ivory!Coast.!
(http://www.timbermerchant.co.za/obeche.html)!
16!In!different!climate!conditions,!this!wood!may!still!decay,!a!source!of!some!concern!to!conservators!at!
The!British!Museum!(personal!communication).!
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12!

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Fig.!1.!Eric!A.!(left)!and!the!senior!apprentice!(right)!building!the!spider!coffin,!with!another!apprentice!
watching.!!!

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Commissioning*Coffins*
When!a!person!dies!in!Ghana,!ordering!the!coffin!is!the!descendants’!responsibility.!
Among!the!Fante17!in!the!Central!region!of!Ghana,!the!coffin!may!symbolise!the!father2
child!relationship,!emphasising!the!strong!paternal!relationships!discernible!in!this!
matrilineal!kinship!structure*(Chukwukere!et'al.!1981:!6325).*However,!buying!the!
coffin!may!not!always!have!been!the!duty!of!descendants.!Eric!K.!held!that!people!used!
to!commission!coffins!themselves,!but!now!let!their!offspring!decide.18!He!recalled!a!
!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
17!The!Fante!are!an!Akan!subgroup.!
18!Design!coffins!are!primarily!made!and!used!by!Ga2speakers!in!Greater!Accra,!who!are!part!of!a!

patrilineal!society.!Children!may!commission!coffins!as!a!way!to!honour!the!deceased!and!fulfill!their!
funerary!obligations.!

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fetish!priest!who!bought!his!own!coffin!10!years!ago,!although!Kane!Kwei!contradicts!
this:!“I!have!never!ever!known!of!anyone!ordering!their!own!coffin”!(Secretan!1995:!
21).!Yet!a!client!ordering!a!coffin!does!not!have!absolute!freedom.!Only!women!may!be!
buried!in!a!chicken2shaped!coffin!(associated!with!domesticity),!while!eagles,!elephants!
and!lions!(symbols!of!power)!are!reserved!for!chiefs!(Tschumi!2008:!66).!!
!
!!!In!July,!Eric!A.!received!a!commission!from!the!descendants!of!a!man!who!had!died!
several!months!before.19!The!man,!known!as!Papa!Nii,!had!been!a!bus!driver!for!the!
Omnibus!Service!Company!(OSA).!His!descendants!had!requested!a!bus2shaped!coffin.!
As!it!was!a!specialised!design,!Eric!K.!visited!an!internet!café!to!obtain!a!picture!of!the!
OSA!bus,!and!based!his!design!on!this.!!Coffin2makers!are!increasingly!using!such!
technology!to!inform!their!work.!!
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Rejected*Coffins*
Coffin2makers!are!often!given!artistic!license,!but!clients!are!not!always!happy!with!the!
results.!Each!coffin2maker!recalled!at!least!one!occasion!when!a!customer!was!
dissatisfied!with!a!coffin.!What!happens!to!a!coffin!when!it!does!not!follow!its!assumed!
life!trajectory,!and!how!do!coffin2makers!negotiate!these!difficulties?!Orlando!spoke!of!a!
coffin!he!had!made!for!a!fetish!priest.!The!elders!of!the!family!had!not!seen!the!coffin,!
nor!did!they!know!it!would!be!a!design!coffin.!They!were!displeased,!and!requested!a!
rectangular!coffin!to!replace!it.!The!family!offered!Orlando!a!bottle!of!schnapps!and!an!
additional!payment!to!compensate!for!the!extra!work.!While!he!increased!his!earnings,!
the!miscommunication!between!Orlando!and!the!family!damaged!his!relationship!with!
the!client.!However,!he!did!not!interpret!this!as!a!failure!but!displayed!the!rejected!
design!coffin!in!his!workshop.!He!commented,!“luckily!the!family!didn’t!want!it,!as!it!has!
brought!business!to!the!workshop,!attracting!visitors”.!A!medicine!man!later!bought!the!
coffin!for!ritual!use!in!his!house.!Although!Orlando!did!not!approve!of!how!the!coffin!
would!be!used,!he!still!sold!it!to!this!man.!Comparing!himself!to!any!commodity!seller,!
Orlando!suggested,!“It’s!like!a!handkerchief.!You!can!use!it!to!wipe!your!hands!or!your!
feet!with!it!2!the!seller!doesn’t!care.!Once!it’s!yours,!it’s!yours”.!From!this!perspective,!

!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

19!The!corpse!had!been!kept!in!a!mortuary!from!May2July!2012.!

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once!the!coffin!had!left!the!workshop,!the!maker!cut!all!ties!from!it;!the!coffin!was!an!
alienable!commodity!(Marx!1896).!!
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!!!Orlando!may!not!be!a!typical!Ghanaian!design!coffin2maker,!yet!such!an!example!
explores!the!complex!relationship!between!different!producers!and!their!products.!His!
workshop!in!Dodowa!was!far!from!other!coffin2makers!on!the!Teshie2Nungua!Road.!He!
trained!and!continues!to!work!as!a!carpenter.!While!Eric!A.!and!Eric!K.!both!expressed!a!
passion!for!coffin2making,!as!they!believed!they!were!providing!families!with!a!service!
and!bringing!them!joy!in!sad!situations,!for!Orlando!the!coffin!industry!was!a!"negative!
profession,!you!are!waiting!for!someone!to!die".!This!contrast!may!suggest!a!division!
between!full2time!coffin2makers!and!those!who!made!coffins!along!with!other!products.!
Orlando’s!experience!in!carpentry!was!more!conventionally!business2like,!creating!
alienable!–!less!emotionally2charged!2!products!for!his!clients.!In!the!design!coffin!
industry,!success!depends!on!both!business!and!social!relationships!with!local!clients.!!
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Fig.!2.!Rejected!coffin!intended!for!fetish!priest!

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Fig.!3.!Bus2shaped!coffin!!

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An*Inalienable*Commodity?*
When!a!coffin!was!commissioned!for!an!exhibition!abroad,!the!maker!would!sign!his!
work!(Fig.!4).!The!signature!confirms!the!object!as!visibly!inalienable,!the!equivalent!of!
a!business!card,!enabling!the!maker!to!extend!his!relationships!for!economic!as!well!as!
social!reasons.!Yet!signatures!are!not!the!only!way!coffin2makers!can!make!their!works!
distinctive.!Eric!K.!claimed!there!was!nothing!about!his!coffins!that!could!distinguish!
them!from!those!of!other!coffin2makers.20!However,!on!his!beer!bottle!coffins,!he!added!
a!health!warning!sign!(Fig.!5),!reflecting!his!personal!views.!He!is!Christian,!and!strongly!
opposed!drinking!alcohol.!In!his!view,!“things!must!change!in!society”!as!alcohol!
consumption!has!become!problematic.!For!some,!like!Eric!K.,!abstention!from!alcohol!is!
a!sign!of!being!a!‘good’!Christian.!As!the!coffin!itself!embodied!his!moral!attitude,!it!
became!difficult!to!see!this!object!as!an!alienable!commodity,!detached!from!its!
producer!and!interchangeable!with!any!other!bottle2shaped!coffin!produced!by!another!
carpenter.!
!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
20!He!mentioned!that!he!could!tell!which!coffins!were!made!by!his!master,!Paa!Joe,!as!they!had!an!artistic!
quality!that!stood!out!from!other!coffin2makers.!
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16!

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!!!So!far,!our!attention!has!been!focused!on!the!relationship!between!coffin2makers!and!
their!products!in!the!workshop.!Mapping!out!the!first!phase!of!the!coffin’s!life!enables!
us!to!draw!similarities!and!differences!with!later!contexts,!particularly!in!relation!to!
private!and!public!space!and!(in)alienability.!
*
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Fig.!4.!!Contact!details!on!bus2shaped!coffin!

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Fig.!5.!Warning!sign!on!beer!bottle!coffin!in!Eric!K.’s!workshop!

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18!

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Part*II*
The*Funeral*
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Leaving*the*Workshop*
Considering!the!shift!from!the!workshop!to!the!funeral!setting,!we!begin!to!see!how!a!
design!coffin!is!invested!with!new!meanings.!The!moment!a!coffin!leaves!the!workshop!
is!a!significant!one;!it!begins!its!journey!to!a!space!of!death.!In!his!study!of!death!in!
Botswana,!Klaits!notes!that!when!people!attend!a!funeral,!they!say!‘we!are!going!to!the!
death’!rather!than!to!someone’s!house.!This!expression!pinpoints!the!physical!location!
of!bereavement!at!the!funeral!(Klaits!2010:248),!a!site!where!funeral!guests!can!mourn!
the!deceased!and!celebrate!their!life.*When!the!bus2shaped!coffin!left!Eric!K.’s!
workshop,!it!left!a!private!space,!where!only!Eric,!his!apprentices!and!I!had!seen!the!
coffin.!The!coffin!simultaneously!became*a!personal!object!for!the!deceased!to!be!buried!
in,!and!a!public!one!visible!to!funeral!guests.!The!transition!from!the!workshop!to!the!
funeral!constituted!a!shift!from!a!private!to!a!public!domain.!The!coffin!was!carried!out!
of!the!showroom!by!apprentices!and!wrapped!in!brown!paper!to!conceal!it.!This!
concealment!created!an!element!of!surprise!at!the!funeral!–!guests!did!not!know!what!
the!coffin!would!look!like,!and!were!more!impressed!when!it!was!finally!revealed.!This!
shift!between!visibility!and!invisibility!surrounding!death!and!funerals!is!an!important!
juxtaposition!that!is!key!to!understanding!funerals!as!a!‘public!occasion’!(Klaits!2010:!
247),!a!point!I!will!return!to.!
!
!!!The!bus2shaped!coffin!was!transported!to!the!funeral!in!a!Land!Rover,!driven!by!the!
deceased’s!eldest!son.!This!expensive!car!acted!as!an!elite!status!symbol!(see!Fig.!6).!
Funerals!across!Africa!have!undergone!significant!changes!over!the!past!several!
decades,!with!the!development!of!mortuaries!increasing!funeral!costs.!Van!der!Geest!
(1995)!notes!that!the!longer!a!corpse!is!kept!at!a!mortuary,!the!more!prestigious!a!
funeral!is!likely!to!be.!The!first!mortuary!in!Ghana!opened!in!1960,!around!the!time!
when!abebuu'adekai'were!first!made'(Tschumi!2008:!218).!Klaits!discusses!how!in!
Botswana,!increased!mortuary!and!funeral!expenses!have!created!a!demand!for!more!
elaborate!coffins!(2010:!249),!which!derive!from!the!concern!of!families!with!their!
public!image.!When!families!in!Ghana!transport!the!deceased!from!the!mortuary!back!to!
the!house,!they!often!pay!higher!prices,!hiring!an!ambulance!or!pick2up!car!(De!Witte!
2001:!121).!This!suggests!that!the!performance!of!respect!to!elders!is!important.!
According!to!Menkiti!(1984)!personhood!in!African!contexts!is!achieved!through!one’s!
life,!not!ascribed!at!birth.!One!becomes!a!person!by!performing!one’s!moral!obligations!
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20!

to!one’s!kin,!and!elders!have!performed!so!many!of!these!they!are!credited!with!having!
‘ethical!maturity’!(Menkiti!1984:!17425).!Thus,!the!older!a!person!is!at!death,!the!more!
elaborate!their!funeral!ceremony!is!likely!to!be.!Papa!Nii!died!a!‘good’!death!at!the!
reported!age!of!115!(Bloch!and!Parry!1982).!His!family!who!were!organising!the!funeral!
met!their!moral!obligations,!and!in!turn!were!becoming!ethically21!mature!persons.!
Transporting!the!coffin!in!an!expensive!vehicle!from!the!workshop!to!the!modest!house!
where!Papa!Nii’s!wake!would!take!place!drew!a!great!deal!of!attention,!and!marked!the!
start!of!an!elaborate!ceremony.!
!

!
Fig.!6.!OSA!bus2shaped!coffin!being!loaded!into!the!Land!Rover,!with!the!deceased’s!eldest!son!watching!
!
!!

Incurring*Debts*and*Fulfilling*Obligations!
Lavish!funerals!do!not!only!advertise!the!wealth!of!those!who!can!afford!them.!To!
obtain!an!abebuu'adeka,!one!must'have!a!certain!social!status!as!well!as!a!stable!
profession.!An!expensive!funeral!is!a!significant!way!a!family!may!construct!or!
consolidate!its!social!reputation.!One!Ga2speaking!man!explained!to!me!“if!they!bury!
!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

21!Here,!following!Lambek!(2010),!I!use!the!terms!ethics!and!morality!interchangeably.!

!

21!

you!in!a!cheap!coffin,!people!gossip,!but!if!you!get!buried!in!an!expensive!one,!it’s!good!
for!the!family”.!Families!often!prefer!to!honour!the!dead!through!an!elaborate!funeral!
that!incurs!debt!rather!than!risk!upsetting!a!future!ancestor!with!a!merely!modest!
ceremony!(Tschumi!2008).!As!De!Witte!comments,!‘the!larger!the!debt,!the!better!the!
funeral’!(2003:!535).!Many!guests!at!Papa!Nii’s!funeral!acknowledged!funeral!debts!
were!common.!Abebuu'adekai!can!be!considered!as!a!form!of!social!capital!(Bourdieu!
1984)!and!conspicuous!consumption!(Veblen!1899),!a!visible!marker!enhancing!the!
social!status!of!those!associated!with!it.!Many!Ghanaians!thought!that!having!a!
respectable!status!in!life!would!enhance!their!status!after!death,!with!an!increased!
chance!of!becoming!an!ancestor.!!
!
!!!However,!not!all!debts!are!financial.!Noret!(2012)!argues!that!organising!a!dignified!
funeral!for!a!parent!in!Southern!Benin!is!a!key!moment!in!the!grieving!process.!In!Benin,!
it!is!often!said!that!organising!funerals!‘are!a!debt!that!we!repay’!to!our!parents!(2012:!
278).!Something!similar!may!happen!in!Ghana,!as!repaying!moral!debts!to!a!parent!
seems!more!important!than!the!accumulation!of!financial!debt.!In!his!study!of!poverty!
in!Malawi,!Englund!(2008)!notes!that!material!conditions!may!constrain!one’s!ability!to!
meet!one’s!moral!obligations.!In!the!Ghanaian!context,!accumulating!debt!may!be!one!
way!to!circumvent!material!(and!financial)!restrictions,!enabling!the!fulfillment!of!
personal!and!moral!obligations,!and!complying!with!long2term!restorative!cycles!of!
pleasing!ancestors!(Bloch!and!Parry!1989).*
!
!!!One!way!families!publically!fulfilled!their!obligations!to!the!deceased!is!through!
obituaries!and!funeral!posters.!Lawuyi!(1991)!discusses!how!Nigerian!obituaries!
advertise!elites.!These!obituaries!are!not!just!about!power;!they!are!also!attributes!of!
status!(1991:!25122).!Visibility!and!status!after!death!are!significant!for!the!living.!De!
Witte!(2001)!makes!a!similar!argument!about!obituary!posters!in!Ghana.!A!typical!
poster!mentions!all!the!people!related!to!the!deceased.!At!death,!one’s!success!and!
social!esteem!is!presented!through!this!network!of!dependents,!for!it!is!they!who!
organise!the!funeral.!However,!it!may!also!indicate!the!living!family’s!position!in!a!web!
of!social!relations,!and!publicly!acknowledge!they!have!fulfilled!their!moral!obligations.!
The!status!of!the!person!and!their!visibility!is!emphasized!after!their!death!in!both!
obituaries!and!funeral!posters.!However,!De!Witte!goes!further,!suggesting!that!

!

22!

replicated!images!appearing!on!funeral!posters!may!not!make!the!dead!publicly!visible,!
but!instead!they!become!increasingly!anonymous!to!those!who!see!their!image!(De!
Witte!2011:!190).!Although!this!resonates!with!my!personal!experience!walking!past!
walls!covered!with!posters!in!Labadi!and!Dodowa,!De!Witte!has!not!considered!who!is!
viewing!these!images.!For!those!related!to!the!deceased,!I!suggest!the!images!do!not!
render!them!anonymous,!but!enable!kin!to!honour!the!dead!publicly.*The!shift!between!
visibility!and!invisibility!surrounding!death!and!funerals!is!an!important!juxtaposition!
that!not!only!highlights!social!status!but!also!moral!obligations!to!the!deceased.*
*
*

The*Wake*
The!wake!for!Papa!Nii’s!funeral!began!on!a!Friday!night.!I!was!invited!to!the!funeral!by!
the!eldest!son!while!admiring!the!coffin!at!Eric!K.’s!workshop,!and!attended!the!wake!
with!Eric.22!He!introduced!me!to!the!elders!of!the!family,!and!I!presented!Schnapps!and!
a!donation.!Eric!explained!that!the!presence!of!a!foreigner!enhances!the!prestige!of!a!
funeral.!Wakes!have!been!banned!in!some!parts!of!Ghana,!apparently!to!curb!excessive!
drunkenness!and!expenditure!(De!Witte!2001).!Accompanied!by!loud!music!blasting!out!
of!speakers!throughout!the!night,!the!wake!was!something!that!could!not!be!ignored;!it!
was!an!important!marker!of!visibility!and!audibility*in!the!public!sphere.23!Family!and!
friends!were!able!to!view,!admire!and!grieve!over!the!adorned!body.!The!elaborate!
display!of!the!corpse!provided!a!sharp!contrast!with!daily!routine!(De!Witte!2001:!5).!
Papa!Nii’s!viewing!room!was!a!small!bedroom!decorated!with!lace,!plastic!flowers!and!
black!and!white!fabrics!hanging!from!the!ceiling.!De!Witte!also!described!these!
decorations!at!the!funeral!of!Agnes,!a!young!Ashanti!woman,!along!with!kente!cloth!
distinctive!to!the!Ashanti!region.!She!describes!Agnes!lying!in!state!like!a!bride,!wearing!
a!white!wedding!dress,!lace!gloves!and!heavy!make2up!(2001:!2).!Papa!Nii!was!dressed!
in!an!ornate!white!and!silver!patterned!cloth,!with!two!strings!of!beaded!necklaces!lying!
on!his!chest,!a!bracelet!on!his!wrist*and!two!gold!rings.!Tschumi!comments!that!
decorating!the!corpse!with!jewellery!may!not!only!be!a!demonstration!of!wealth,!but!
!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

22!Eric!K.!does!not!usually!attend!the!wake2keeping!or!funerals!of!his!clients.!He!disapproves!of!the!

excessive!drinking,!and!feels!“it!is!better!if!I!don’t!go”.!But!he!kindly!made!an!exception!to!take!me!to!a!
wake!to!introduce!me!to!the!family.!
23!!An!article!in!The!Guardian!(7!February!2013)!discusses!how!Ghanaians!are!calling!for!Fridays!off!work!
as!funerals!take!over!weekends!(http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2013/feb/07/ghana2call2friday2off2
funeral).!!

!

23!

also!“protects!the!deceased!from!evil!spirits”!(2008:!169).!This!suggests!that!not!all!
funeral!expenses!are!forms!of!conspicuous!consumption!alone,!but!may!have!spiritual!
or!religious!reasonings!behind!them.!!
!
!!!In!the!viewing!room,!many!funeral!guests!leant!over!the!body!to!take!photographs!
with!their!mobile!phones.!People!may!choose!to!capture!images!of!the!deceased!to!
create!a!sense!of!social!immediacy!for!the!benefit!of!absent!living!kin!(Smith!2008).*A!
professional!cameraman!was!also!filming!guests!2!all!evidence!of!the!importance!of!
“seeing!and!being!seen”!(De!Witte!2001:!6).!Attending!a!prestigious!funeral!may!not!
only!have!enhanced!one’s!social!status!but!also!acknowledged!that!the!family!has!
fulfilled!their!moral!obligations,!both!to!the!deceased!and!to!their!existing!kin.24*De!
Witte!adds!that!photography!aids!the!transformation!from!‘being!a!person!in!the!
community’!to!‘being!remembered!as!a!person!in!the!community’!(De!Witte!2001:!40).!
At!many!funerals,!photographers!and!video2makers!are!hired!to!record!ceremonies,!
capturing!images!of!the!guests!present!and!most!importantly,!the!corpse.!At!Papa!Nii’s!
funeral,!guests!were!encouraged!to!take!photographs!of!the!corpse,!and!were!
simultaneously!shown!photos!of!the!living!person!in!the!funeral!programme!(Fig.!7).!In!
Wendl!and!DuPlessis’s!(1998)!documentary!film!Future'Remembrance:'Photography'and'
Image'Arts'in'Ghana,!photographers!are!thought!to!‘capture!memory!–!how!you!want!to!
be!remembered!when!you!die’.!Photography!can!also!be!an!important!element!in!a!rite!
of!passage!(De!Witte:!2011),!aiding!the!transformation!from!one!state!to!another.!
Photography!also!became!a!rite!of!passage!for!myself!as!a!witness.!Being!encouraged!to!
take!photographs!transformed!me!from!an!outsider!to!someone!more!integrated!into!
the!funeral!setting.!
*

!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
24*As!previously!stated,!it!is!the!descendants’!responsibility!to!commission!the!coffin.!Attending!the!

funeral!is!a!personal!confirmation!that!one!has!fulfilled!one’s!moral!role.!The!visibility!of!the!coffin,!along!
with!the!visibility!of!the!family,!confirms!this!to!other!kin2members!and!funeral!guests.**

!

24!

!
Fig.!7.!Funeral!programme!for!Papa!Nii!!

!

!

25!

!
Fig.!8.!Taking!photographs!of!Papa!Nii!laying2in2state!

!

26!

!
Fig.!9.!Cameraman!filming!outside!the!viewing!room!

!
!

‘Saturday*is*for*Funerals’*
The!wake!continued!throughout!the!night,!and!the!following!morning!the!funeral!began.!
Saturday!is!known!as!the!‘funeral!day’!in!many!parts!of!Africa.!Dow!and!Essex!comment!
that!due!to!the!increasing!rates!of!AIDS!deaths,!funerals!in!Botswana!were!so!common!
that!you!could!not!plan!any!other!event!for!Saturday!mornings!(2011:!1).!I!arrived!at!
Papa!Nii’s!funeral!on!Saturday!morning,!and!was!seated!with!the!female!relatives.25!As!
!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
25!Male!and!female!relatives!of!the!deceased!were!seated!separately,!whereas!all!other!funeral!guests!sat!
together.!

!

27!

guests!began!to!arrive,!they!made!their!way!to!greet!the!elders!of!the!family,!offering!
their!condolences!and!giving!a!small!donation.!This!shows!similarities!with!Edkvist’s!
study!of!the!famadihana,!a!large,!important!ceremony!of!reburial!in!Madagascar,!also!
involving!distributions!of!money.!It!is!thought!that!this!money!or!‘gift’!shall!be!returned!
to!the!person!the!next!time!they!host!a!famadihana,!and!the!value!of!the!gift!increases!
(1997:!61).!This!emphasis!on!reciprocity!of!a!‘gift’!is!also!apparent!in!Bonsu’s!work!on!
funeral!consumption!among!the!Asante!in!Ghana.!If!one!does!not!offer!a!funeral!
donation,!no!returns!may!be!expected!on!one’s!own!death.!Participants!ensured!that!
they!were!not!mistaken!for!someone!who!did!not!make!financial!contribution,!and!who!
thereby!developed!a!‘bad’!name.!Funeral!guests!often!preferred!their!donations!to!be!
publicly!announced,!ensuring!their!social!status!was!not!in!jeopardy!(2008:!710).!When!
I!asked!a!woman!at!Papa!Nii’s!funeral!how!one!decides!how!much!money!to!give,!she!
responded,!!
!
It!depends!on!the!lifestyle!of!the!person!who!is!dead.!If!they!have!been!to!people’s!
funerals!and!they!contribute!to!the!funeral,!others!will!also!do!the!same.!But!if!in!
your!lifetime!you!don’t!go!to!other!people’s!funerals!and!you!don’t!contribute!
anything,!people!will!not!contribute!to!yours.!So,!it!depends!on!your!lifestyle!when!
you’re!alive.!!

'
!!!Thus,!there!was!a!clear!emphasis!on!reciprocity.!Menkiti!(1984)!notes!that!in!African!
settings,!“personhood!is!attained…!as!one!participates!in!communal!life!through!the!
discharge!of!the!various!obligations!defined!by!one’s!stations”!(1984:!176).!This!
suggests!that!the!more!one!participates!in!social!life,!the!more!likely!one!is!to!be!
considered!a!full!person.!A!successful!funeral!and!how!one!honoured!the!deceased!did!
not!just!depend!on!the!family!organising!it;!it!also!relied!on!the!generosity!and!
participation!of!the!individual!during!their!lifetime.!!
!
!

Visualising*the*Coffin*
Papa!Nii’s!funeral!reached!its!climax!when!the!elaborate!coffin!was!revealed.!The!family!
pushed!me!to!the!front!of!the!crowd,!encouraging!me!to!take!photographs.!Barthes!
(1977)!comments!that!objects!in!photographs!are!accepted!inducers!of!associations!of!

!

28!

ideas!or!veritable!symbols!(Barthes!1977:!22).!Like!the!coffin,!I!had!become!a!visible!
part!of!the!funeral,!enhancing!its!distinctiveness!and!prestige.!While!the!coffin!and!
photographs!are!two!visible!markers!of!the!funeral,!they!may!be!displayed!in!different!
ways.!The!contrast!between!the!abundance!of!photography26!at!the!funeral!and!the!
iconography!of!the!coffin!has!been!discussed!in!Bonetti’s!(2009a)!work!on!abebuu'
adekai.!She!argues!that!while!photographs!are!a!literal!representation!of!the!deceased!
and!evoke!an!image!of!them,!the!coffin!does!not.27!Once!it!contains!the!body,!the!coffin!is!
thought!to!transform!into!the!image!of!the!deceased,!which!will!guide!the!living!to!the!
grave.!From!this!moment!forth,!the!image!of!the!coffin!is!the!identity!of!the!deceased;!
photographs!may!no!longer!be!viewed!as!the!ultimate!image!of!the!dead.!Bonetti!claims!
that!at!funeral!rituals,!the!coffin!was!presented!as!part!of!the!deceased!–!no!longer!seen!
as!just!a!wooden!sculpture,!but!as!the!body!of!the!deceased!(Bonetti!2010).!However,!at!
Papa!Nii’s!funeral,!the!coffin!did!not!and!could!not!represent!the!deceased’s!whole*
identity,!but!rather!his!social!role:!the!publicly!recognized!profession!of!a!bus!driver.!
The!shift!from!the!private!to!public!domain,!from!the!workshop!to!the!funeral,!is!
mirrored!by!the!shift!from!privately!representing!the!coffin2maker,!to!publicly!
representing!the!deceased’s!social!role.!Mauss!(1985)!claims!that!most!societies!make!a!
distinction!between!a!social!role!and!the!individual!who!fills!it.!While!the!funeral!as!a!
whole!aims!to!celebrate!and!commemorate!the!life!of!the!individual,!the!coffin!
specifically!represents!their!profession!or!status.!However,!against!the!short!lifespan!of!
a!coffin,!photography!creates!a!permanent!record.!In!Wendl!and!Du!Plessis’s!(1998)!
film,!one!informant!commented,!“coffins!are!only!permanent!in!photographs”.!Thus,!
coffins!and!photographs!are!two!forms!of!representing!the!dead!that!may!coincide.!
!
!!!It!is!also!possible!to!think!about!coffins!and!photography!as!building!upon!each!other!
in!layers.!Wendl!(2001)!argues!that!clothing!provides!a!person’s!‘second!skin’,!and!
photography!may!supply!an!additional!‘third!skin’!(2001a:!85).!The!concept!of!‘skin’!has!
been!developed!by!Küchler!(1988,!2002)!in!relation!to!malanggan!in!Melanesia.!
Malanggan2figures!are!produced!for!funeral!ceremonies!through!‘tetak’,!‘the!making!of!
skin’!(2002:!103).!These!figures!are!not!representations!of!a!person,!but!present!what!is!
!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
26!Wendl!(2001)!notes!that!“the!custom!of!taking!post!mortem!photographs!in!Ghana!while!the!dead!are!
laid!in!state!seems!to!go!back!to!the!days!of!Victorian!colonial!culture”!(2001:!96)!
27!However,!several!coffin2makers!informed!me!that!if!requested,!a!face!could!be!carved!into!the!coffin,!

though!admittedly,!this!was!uncommon.!

!

29!

not!present!by!fashioning!an!image!that!recalls!what!is!absent!into!memory!(Ginsburg!
1991!cited!in!Küchler!2002:!112).!The!carving!‘is’!skin!and!‘like’!a!person,!able!to!
substitute!for!the!mortal!body!(2002:!115).!The!sculpture!therefore!is!a!product!of!a!
process!of!creating!a!container!to!replace!the!decomposed!body!of!the!deceased!person!
(Küchler!1988:!630).!While!Wendl!suggests!the!possibility!of!accumulating!additional!
skins,!Küchler!argues!that!malanggan!acts!as!a!replacement!skin.!In!the!context!of!
design!coffins,!these!two!perspectives!may!be!merged.!While!supporting!Wendl’s!view!
that!one!may!have!multiple!skins,!abebuu'adekai!replaced!the!‘skin’!of!the!deceased,!and!
came!to!represent!part!of!the!deceased!person.!The!use!of!photography!may!then!be!
thought!of!as!a!‘second!skin’.!Coffins,!like!malangganIfigures,!are!temporary,!yet!
photography!gives!them!permanency.!
!
!!!Photography!as!a!‘technology!of!remembrance’!(De!Witte!2011)!is!not!unique!to!
Ghana.!In!his!observations!of!indigenous!Amazonian!funerals!in!Venezeula,!Allard!notes!
that!Warao!visit!the!house!where!the!corpse!is!exposed.!They!must!see!the!corpses!of!all!
their!relatives,!either!directly!or!in!photographs,!in!order!to!remember!the!dead!person!
as'a'dead'person!(Allard!forthcoming).!This!is!similar!to!Taylor’s!(1993)!account!of!
mourning!as!a!process!of!disremembering!among!the!Jivaro.!The!image!of!the!deceased!
is!made!to!‘die’,!and!is!recognized!as!the!representation!of!a!dead!person!rather!than!of!
a!living!one!(1993:!655).!Visualising!the!corpse,!far!from!commemorating!the!deceased!
as!they!were!when!alive,!works!as!a!way!to!disremember!the!living.!However,!this!was!
not!the!case!at!Papa!Nii’s!funeral.!Different!aspects!of!the!funeral!sought!to!present!Papa!
Nii!at!various!stages!of!his!life;!as!youthful!(revealed!through!photographs!in!the!funeral!
programme),!as!a!professional!(suggested!by!the!bus2shaped!coffin),!and!as!an!old!man!
(indicated!by!the!corpse).!The!immediacy!of!the!corpse!does!not,!as!Taylor!suggests,!
work!to!disremember!the!living,!but!instead!highlights!the!process!of!aging!and!
commemorates!the!deceased!during!his!life.*
!
!

Religious*Perspectives*on*Abebuu%Adekai%
Papa!Nii’s!funeral!involved!an!ambiguous!combination!of!‘traditional’!and!Christian!
practices.!One!woman!commented!on!the!fact!that!abebuu'adekai'is!“our!custom!here”,!
but!she!would!not!want!to!be!buried!in!one.!She!explained!that!she!is!Christian,!so!only!
!

30!

wants!a!rectangular2shaped!coffin!(traditional!for!Christians),!although!she!approved!of!
bible2shaped!coffins.!Other!Christians!strongly!opposed!abebuu'adekai.!For!example,!
one!man!in!Dodowa!stated,!“Once!you’re!dead,!you’re!dead.!They!are!a!waste!of!money”.!
Several!Christian!152year!old!girls!with!whom!I!spoke!in!Dodowa!said!most!adekai!
scared!them,!yet!they!felt!comforted!by!the!bible!adekai.!Religious!consumption!in!the!
form!of!images,!written!texts!and!films!is!common!in!Ghana,!particularly!among!
Pentecostals!(Meyer!2009).!Bible2coffins!are!an!increasingly!popular!form!of!religiously!
motivated!consumerism!(Englund!2011).!
!

!
Fig.!10.!Unfinished!Bible2shaped!coffin!

'
!!!Exploring!Christian!views!surrounding!death!at!Ashanti!funerals,!De!Witte!(2001)!
notes!that!Christian!teachings!about!death!are!clearly!different!from!those!of!African!
‘traditionalists’.!28!From!my!observations!at!a!funeral,!I!argue!that!in!practice,!such!
distinctions!are!less!clear2cut.!De!Witte!maintains!that!the!main!differences!between!
Christian!and!‘traditional’!attitudes!concern!ties!between!the!dead!and!the!living.!In!
!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
28!From!the!2000!census,!68.8%!of!the!population!defined!themselves!as!Christians,!while!8.5%!called!

themselves!‘traditionalists’.!!

!

31!

contemporary!Christian!doctrine,!the!dead!are!denied!any!direct!influence!on!the!living,!
nor!do!they!return!to!earth.!In!‘traditional’!beliefs,!however,!there!is!a!reciprocal!
relationship.!The!dead!are!thought!to!affect!the!fortune!of!the!living,!who!in!turn!can!
influence!the!destination!and!well2being!of!the!departed!spirits!(2001:!32).!!
!
!!!African!Christians!do!not!always!reject!‘traditional’!beliefs;!they!may!incorporate!them!
into!their!everyday!lives.!Eicher!and!Erekisoma!comment,!for!example,!that!at!Kalabari!
funerals!in!Nigeria,!Christians!have!accommodated!Kalabari!tradition!to!church!liturgy!
(1987:!44).!Edkvist’s!(1997)!study!of!Hira!Gasy!performances!in!Madagascar!highlights!
how!some!troupes!put!more!emphasis!than!others!on!the!praise!of!God.!Even!though!
most!Malagasy!call!themselves!Christians,!they!have!interpreted!Christianity!according!
to!their!own!world2view!(1997:!83).!In!Ghana,!I!was!told!that!some!Christian!churches!
reject!design!coffins.29!Christian!families!who!commissioned!a!design!coffin!with!no!
explicit!religious!reference,!such!as!the!bus2shaped!coffin,!may!emphasise!specifically!
Christian!aspects!of!the!funeral!to!compensate!for!this.!For!example,!Papa!Nii’s!funeral!
programme!depicted!him!in!an!idealized,!moral!form!–!a!loving!parent,!devoted!spouse!
and!good!Christian.!In!his!funeral,!Christian!and!‘traditional’!perspectives!were!made!
compatible.!!!
!
!!!The!use!of!photography!further!reveals!the!complex!relation!between!Christian!and!
‘traditional’!beliefs.!Christian!doctrine!holds!that!Christians!sever!connections!with!the!
dead.!One!could!argue!that!photographing!the!corpse!at!a!funeral!is!related!to!this!
attitude,!stressing!that!the!deceased!have!no!ongoing!relevance!to!the!living!except!in!
memory.!However,!as!previously!discussed,!the!display!of!photographs!of!the!living!in!
the!funeral!programme,!along!with!an!indication!of!the!deceased’s!profession!by!means!
of!the!coffin,!makes!it!difficult!to!pinpoint!specific!funeral!practices!as!either!Christian!
or!‘traditional’.!Just!as!‘Christian’!and!‘traditional’!beliefs!are!blurred!during!life,!they!
also!become!entangled!through!the!process!of!remembering.!
!
!
*
!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
29!According!to!Eric!K.,!Pentecostal!churches!only!allow!bible2shaped!and!church2shaped!coffins!to!be!
buried!in!church!cemeteries.!!

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32!

!!!This!section!drew!attention!to!the!funeral!as!a!public!occasion,!indicated!by!the!wake,!
the!funeral!ceremony,!and!the!emphasis!on!the!visibility!of!the!corpse,!the!coffin!and!
funeral!guests.!!The!entangled!Christian!and!‘traditional’!perspectives!are!an!important!
aspect!of!the!funeral,!and!become!evident!once!again!at!the!burial.!
*
*
!

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Fig.!11.!!Pastor!reading!from!the!Bible.!

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*
Part*III*
The*Burial*
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34!

Entering*the*Cemetery*
Moving!from!the!house!of!the!deceased!to!the!burial!site!marks!another!transition!in!the!
funeral!sequence!and!the!next!phase!of!the!coffin’s!life.!The!coffin!was!driven!to!the!
cemetery!in!a!rented!ambulance.!On!reaching!the!cemetery,!it!was!carried!on!the!
shoulders!of!eight!men,!all!relatives!or!guests!(Fig.!12).!!
!

!
Fig.!12.!Carrying!coffin!to!the!grave!

!
!!!When!the!men!reached!the!grave,!it!took!some!effort!to!place!the!coffin!respectfully!in!
the!ground,!while!pallbearers!shouted!at!each!other!over!blasting!trumpets.!The!music!
subsided!as!the!pastor!read!from!the!bible!in!Ga.!A!prayer!was!said,!and!two!large!heart2
shaped!packages!of!ribbons!were!thrown!into!the!grave!(Fig.!13.)30.!To!begin!the!burial!
itself,!a!shovelful!of!earth!was!thrown!onto!the!coffin.!One!man!encouraged!me!to!join!
in,!explaining!I!should!throw!three!small!rocks!onto!the!coffin,!which!I!was!told!means!
“just!have!a!pleasant!day”.!!
!
!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
30!These!were!offerings!accompanied!with!notes!saying!‘from!the!children’!and!‘from!the!grandchildren’!
that!were!to!be!buried!alongside!the!deceased!and!the!coffin.!
!

35!

!

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Fig.!13.!Heart2shaped!festoon!of!ribbons!as!funeral!offering!

!

Smashing*the*Coffin*
What!happened!next!was!in!sharp!contrast!to!the!tone!of!preceding!events.!The!
pallbearers!smashed!the!glass!windows!of!the!bus2shaped!coffin,!kicked!off!the!wheels,!
and!broke!the!roof!(Fig.!14).!One!funeral!guest!explained!this!was!to!prevent!the!theft!
and!resale!of!the!coffin.!But!not!all!Ghanaians!accept!this!explanation.!Eric!A.!believed!
that!coffin2smashing!usually!occurred!because!thieves!may!seek!expensive!jewellery!
inside!the!coffins.31!When!I!asked!if!he!minded!that!people!smash!design!coffins!he!
made,!he!replied:!
!
!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
31!Conversations!with!the!descendants!of!Papa!Nii!who!organized!the!funeral!and!bought!the!beads!
indicated!they!were!not!particularly!expensive,!and!this!would!not!be!a!primary!reason!for!thieves!to!dig!
up!coffins.!

!

36!

“A!little!bit!is!OK.!If!it’s!a!plane,!they!can!take!off!the!wings!to!bury!it,!but!I!don’t!like!
it!if!they!smash!everything.!Usually!I!speak!to!the!family!first!if!I!am!going!to!the!
funeral”.!

!
!!!In!her!observations!of!a!design!coffin!funeral,!Tschumi!(2008)!notes!that!a!fish2shaped!
coffin!was!dismantled!‘so!it!will!not!occur!to!anyone!to!steal!Paa!Joe’s!masterpiece!and!
thereby!disturb!the!dead!man’!(2008:!208).!This!view!contrasts!with!much!of!the!
anthropological!literature!on!destruction!in!funerary!rites.!Grinsell!(1961),!in!a!cross2
cultural!examination!of!destruction!in!funerary!rites,*suggests!that!one!reason!people!
break!objects!during!funerals!is!to!release!the!spirit!in!the!object!so!that!it!may!
accompany!the!dead!to!the!afterlife!(1961:!476).!Mauss!(2002)!viewed!the!potlatch!as!
benefitting!not!only!the!spirits!but!also!the!prestige!of!the!sponsor!(2002:20).!In!the!
Ghanaian!context,!Tschumi!expressed!the!risk!that!stealing!the!coffin!would!disturb!the!
dead!man,!but!the!status!of!the!living!is!also!at!stake.!Concern!that!a!coffin!might!be!
stolen!enhances!its!prestige!as!a!valuable*object,!and!thus!of!its!makers!and!
commissioners.*
*
!

*
Fig.!14.!Bus2shaped!coffin!after!being!smashed.!

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!

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37!

Partible*Persons*
Gell’s!(1998)!theory!of!art!and!agency,!partly!inspired!by!Strathern’s!(1988)!idea!of!
partible!persons,!helps!link!the!‘social!lives’!of!design!coffins!with!the!social!lives!of!
those!who!make!or!commission!(or!lie!in)!them.!In!this!view,!art!and!other!objects!can!
be!‘person2like’!“because!as!social!persons,!we!are!present!not!just!in!our!singular!
bodies,!but!in!everything!in!our!surroundings!which!bears!witness!to!our!existence,!our!
attributes,!and!our!agency”!(Gell!1998:!103).!Design!coffins!can!be!thought!of!as!bearing!
‘witness!to!our!existence’,!allowing!funeral!guests!to!reflect!and!remember!the!life!of!the!
deceased,!as!well!as!enabling!the!transfer!from!one!state!of!existence!to!another,!the!
human!world!to!the!afterlife.!Specific!attributes!are!embodied!in!design!coffins,!not!just!
the!attributes!of!the!deceased,!but!also!of!the!living.!An!abebuu'adeka'conveys!what!a!
person!had!achieved!in!their!lifetime,!usually!through!their!profession,!yet!it!also!
indicates!that!their!kin!have!fulfilled!their!moral!obligations!to!the!deceased!by!
providing!an!appropriate!and!memorable!coffin,!as!well!as!a!concomitant!high2status!
funeral.!Gell!comments!that!there!is!an!‘inseparable!transition’!between!the!agency!in!
objects!and!actual!human!agents!(Thomas!2001:!5).!!We!may!say!that*design!coffins!are!
analogous!not!just!to!the!person!who!lies!in!it,!but!also!to!parts!of!the!personas!of!others!
associated!with!it.!The!deceased’s!family!and!the!deceased!themselves!remain!closely!
associated!with!the!coffin;!and!Eric!A.’s!comment!that!he!disliked!people!smashing!the!
whole!coffin!suggests!this!also!applies!to!the!maker.*!
!
!!!In!Budja’s!(2010)!archaeological!account!of!burial,!he!claims!that!a!funerary!rite!brings!
the!person!together.!He!follows!Gell!in!arguing!that,!while!alive,!the!person!is!
distributed!through!the!social!and!material!world;!he/she!only!becomes!a!‘whole!
person’!immediately!after!death!and!before!the!disposal!of!the!body,!a!temporary!state!
that!is!dramatized!during!the!mortuary!rite!(Budja!2010:!49).!Budja!claims!that!all!the!
things!the!person!embodies!are!brought!together!and!made!explicit!for!everyone!to!see!
(also!see!Middleton!1982).!They!are!then!divided!again,!and!these!parts!are!
redistributed!through!mortuary!exchanges.!However,!as!Fowler!(2001)!notes!in!relation!
to!the!British!Neolithic,!this!redistribution!would!have!been!dependent!on!the!exact!
nature!of!social!relations!each!person!was!involved!in!(2001:!154).!!
!

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38!

!!!While!Budja’s!and!Fowler’s!analyses!focus!on!the!person,!a!similar!argument!can!be!
applied!to!an!abebuu'adeka.!Instead!of!considering!how!a!person!is!partible,!I!suggest!
that!an!abebuu'adeka!2!itself!a!‘person2like’!object!with!its!own!social!life!2!can!
materialise!multiple!fragments!of!partible!persons.!While!‘alive’,!the!coffin!was!
distributed!through!the!social!and!material!world,!moving!from!the!workshop!to!house!
of!the!deceased,!from!the!hands!of!the!coffin2maker!to!the!family!who!commissioned!it.!
The!coffin!was!invested!with!new!meanings!in!each!setting,!and!incorporated!aspects!of!
the!identities!of!many!people.!In!each!place,!the!coffin!was!remembered!through!
photographs,!videos!and!stories,!which!suggests!that!it!remained!spatio2temporally!
distributed.!At!the!burial!site,!all!the!identities!embodied!in!the!coffin!were!brought!
together.!The!coffin!as!the!focus!of!attention!at!the!grave!acted!as!a!reminder!of!the!
deceased’s!wider!role!in!society!through!his!profession,!the!family’s!ability!to!provide!a!
fitting!funeral!enhancing!their!social!status,!along!with!admiration!of!the!coffin2maker’s!
work.*Yet!once!the!coffin!was!smashed,!these!aspects!became!divided!again,!in!both!
material!and!spiritual!ways.!The!coffin2maker!was!physically!and!symbolically!
separated!from!his!work!through!its!destruction,!and!could!only!recall!the!coffin!
through!his!memories.!The!family’s!financial!investment!was!no!longer!visible.!Once!
buried,!the!coffin!could!not!indicate!that!a!moral!obligation!had!been!successfully!
completed,!and!again,!it!was!dependent!on!the!memories!of!funeral!guests,!along!with!
photographs!and!videos,*to!validate!this!success.!If!the!family!managed!to!provide!a!
‘good!send2off’,!and!the!deceased!had!lived!a!moral!life,!then!Papa!Nii’s!soul!would!
detach!from!his!body!and!ascend!to!heaven,!where!he!would!become!an!ancestor.!This!
suggests!in!practice,!it!can!be!hard!to!assign!motivations!separately!to!Christianity!or!
‘tradition’.!!!
!
!

MalangganQfigures*and*Abebuu%Adekai*
Gell!analyses!malanggan2figures,!which!share!some!features!with!design!coffins;!both!
only!‘exist’!as!socially!salient!objects!for!a!short!period!at!mortuary!ceremonies.!
However,!whereas!a!malanggan2figure!is!‘killed’!with!gifts!of!money,!enabling!donors!to!
remember!the!image!on!display!(Gell!1998:!22325),!a!design!coffin!is!literally!destroyed!
by!the!family!who!commissioned!it.!Malanggan2figures!may!be!ritually!‘dead’,!but!they!
are!not!abandoned.!They!may!be!sold!to!visiting!tourists!or!collectors!(Küchler!1999:!

!

39!

58).!This!contrasts!with!design!coffins,!which!are!built!either!for!local!use!or'
international!consumption,!but!never!for!both.32!
!
!!!In!Ghana,!the!funeral!guests!may!appreciate!the!memory!of!a!design!coffin!more!than!
the!actual!object.!This!is!consistent!with!its!destruction!and!burial!being!within!a!few!
hours!of!being!on!display.!Likewise,!in!New!Ireland,!what!is!valued!is!not!the!
malanggan2figures!themselves,!but!the!memory!of!their!image.!Küchler!(2002)!
comments!that!a!malangganIfigure!does!not!‘look!like’!the!person!whom!it!
commemorates.!Rather,!“the!relation!acknowledges!a!gap!between!the!representation!
and!the!represented!in!that!it!is!a!relation!of!visual!analogy”!(2002:!113).!A!design!
coffin,!representing!the!deceased’s!social!role,!can!also!be!considered!a!‘visual!analogy’;!
the!bus!was!related!metonymically!to!the!profession,!the!main!public!identity!of!the!
deceased.!Yet!the!deceased’s!identity!was!not!the!only!one!invested!in!the!coffin.!
Different!agents!shape!the!abebuu'adeka!at!each!stage!of!its!life!course!so!that!it!comes!
to!materialize!their!social!relations.!The!coffin!was!not!just!a!container!or!the!passive!
reflection!of!relationships,!but!an!active!reminder!of!the!actions!that!formed!it!(Empson!
2006).!In!reference!to!malangganIfigures,!Gell!states!they!are!“a!kind!of!body!which!
accumulates,!like!a!charged!battery,!the!potential!energy!of!the!deceased!dispersed!in!
the!life2world”!(Gell!1998:!226).!Instead!of!a!design!coffin!accumulating!only!the!
‘potential!energy!of!the!deceased’,!I!suggest!they!can!accumulate!the!potential!energies!
of!many!people,!particularly!the!coffin2maker!and!the!family!too.!!
*
!!!For!both!malanggan2figures!and!abebuu'adekai,!their!destruction!marks!a!moment!
when!visual!images!become!recollected.!The!decomposition!of!malanggan!is!thought!to!
complete!the!stripping!of!the!skin!from!the!medium!and!transform!the!visual!
representation!into!memory,!connecting!those!who!partook!in!the!sacrifice!of!the!
sculpture!(Küchler!1988:!632).!Likewise,!in!Ghana,!memory!is!foregrounded!after!
abebuu'adekai'are!destroyed.!Cole!(2001)!describes!memory!as!working!much!like!a!
camera;!it!selectively!records!an!experience!in!a!form!that!remains!unchanged!and!
produces!an!image!to!prompt!a!later!reimagining!of!that!experience!(2001:!22).!Bearing!
!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
32!However,!Orlando’s!rejected!coffin,!which!was!originally!intended!for!a!funeral,!was!later!used!as!a!
showpiece!in!his!workshop.!Although!design!coffins!are!never!intentionally!created!for!both!workshop!
display!and!burial,!this!example!shows!that!a!rejected!coffin!may!shift!roles,!registering!in!the!world!of!
consumption.!

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in!mind!that!a!design!coffin!already!works!by!visual!analogy,!photographs!and!videos!of!
an!abebuu'adeka!create!further!representations!of!the!coffin!and!how!it!is!displayed.!
The!visual!recognition!of!funeral!guests!in!photographs,!and!the!sounds!and!movements!
in!videos,!enables!later!reimaginings!of!these!experiences.!These!images!confirm!the!
importance!of!the!occasion!by!signifying,!in!themselves,!that!the!funeral!deserved!to!
have!photographs!taken!and!videos!made.'Photographs!and!videos!do!not!just!trigger!
memory,!but!shape!it.!!
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Conclusion*
Küchler!has!argued!that!“malanggan!is!one!of!the!rare!ethnographic!examples!of!a!
funerary!ritual!that!culminates!in!the!production,!display!and!death!of!figures”!(2002:!
111).!Design!coffins!are!another!example.!Like!malanggan,!some!abebuu'adekai!end!up!
in!suspended!animation!as!exhibits!in!foreign!museums,!but!their!domestic!life!course!
runs!from!the!workshop!to!cemetery!via!the!house!of!the!deceased.!!
!
!!!During!its!life!cycle,!an!abebuu'adeka'oscillates!between!private!and!public!spheres.!
While!the!display!rooms!of!workshops!were!visible!to!passersby,!they!attracted!few!
visitors!and!coffins!themselves!were!usually!constructed!away!from!public!view.!Few!
witnessed!the!creation!of!Eric!K.’s!bus2shaped!coffin.!From!a!private,!almost!secret!
object!in!the!workshop!it!became!a!focus!of!attention!at!the!house!of!the!deceased,!
taking!on!Papa!Nii’s!public!identity.!As!the!coffin!was!transported!to!the!cemetery!it!was!
once!again!hidden!from!view,!only!to!become!visible!for!a!final!time!as!it!was!carried!to!
the!grave.!The!concealment!of!the!coffin!as!it!was!transferred!between!sites!built!
suspense!before!the!climax.!This!switch!between!public!visibility!and!private!invisibility!
is!characteristic!of!the!abebuu'adeka,!and!presented!the!coffin!as!a!revelatory!visual!
phenomenon.!!
!
!!!But!why!go!to!such!lengths?!Enhancing!the!social!status!of!the!craftsman!and!his!
clients!may!both!be!motives.!Historically,!urbanisation!and!the!development!of!
mortuaries!have!helped!increase!the!status!of!coffin2makers!who!have!become!well2
respected!businessmen!advertising!their!works!in!public.!However,!families!are!also!
concerned!with!their!moral!standings.!Accumulating!debt!enables!the!family!to!meet!
their!moral!obligation!through!material!provisions.!At!Papa!Nii’s!funeral,!the!family!
expressed!obligations!to!the!deceased!through!the!provision!of!a!fitting!funeral,!
including!the!design!coffin.!Photographs!and!videos!enabled!the!funeral!to!be!
remembered!and!reimagined,!and!may!have!enhanced!each!family!member’s!sense!of!
moral!personhood!–!fulfilling!the!role!of!a!devoted!spouse!or!loyal!sibling,!and!being!
recognised!as!doing!so.!!
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!!!At!the!burial,!all!elements!of!the!coffin’s!social!life!were!convoked.!The!coffin!retained!
multiple!fragments!of!partible!persons:!aspects!of!the!identities!of!the!coffin2maker,!the!
deceased’s!family!and!the!deceased!were!brought!together.!Yet!once!the!coffin!was!
smashed,!these!fragments!were!divided!again.!Memory!played!an!important!part!in!
validating!the!success!of!the!coffin2maker!and!the!moral!and!material!standing!of!the!
family.!Instead!of!viewing!abebuu'adekai!as!‘receptacles!of!proverbs’,!it!may!be!more!
suitable!to!see!them!as!receptacles!of!personhood.!!!
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