Designer Coffin; Who Is Going In Style? – By Vicky Wireko

If you are the type who dotes on designer outfits and accessories, has it crossed your mind that you can stay consistent even till after death and exit this world in elegance lying in a designer made coffin?

Perhaps you love the Mercedes Benz and BMW saloon cars of this world and have lined up all the series in your garage. You can take a made-to-fit one with your own specifications as your coffin.

For those who love style and would wear nothing but designs from CK, YSL, Vera Wang, DKNY, Burberry, Versace, Louis Vuitton and creations from those top western designers, your exit from this world can also be in style – with your own made-in-here designed coffin.

Death is one of the very few things that are predictable in a man’s life. It never escapes anyone, rich or poor, white or black, young or old. Yet the way we exit this world is one topic we shun away from in a normal conversation. For example, how many would talk about the kind of coffin they would like to be buried in whereas it is easier to talk about the next car we would want to save for.

Last week, I visited not a car showroom but one of the few places that would hardly cross anyone’s mind. I went to one of the few designed coffin shops we have in town. Not that I was looking to buy one but out of curiosity, I wanted to find out why anyone would want to make a business out of a subject we fear to talk about – death.

My curiosity took me to Kane Kwei Carpentry shop at Teshie, a suburb of Accra. This apparently, is the first designed coffin carpentry shop in Ghana. As I walked in, I spotted a customer alert gentleman who met me at the display room. With a grin, and holding a pen and paper in his hand, he came straight to me asking how he could help me.

He obviously thought that I was a prospective customer. Nonetheless, having told him my mission and without showing any disappointment on his face, 27 year old Solomon Tetteh who described himself as the senior carpenter was ready to talk to me. He put his paper and pen away as I reached for mine from my bag.

Inside the display room were a number of designed coffins carved in anything one could think of. There was a chief’s sword, the eagle, a lion, fish, cocoa pod, beer bottle, coke bottle, fresh tomato box, and a car. In effect, they are able to design any coffin to suit any order. A few other new designs were being crafted in an adjoining workshop. If one wanted one’s own design, all one needed was a maximum of two weeks’ notice.

With week-ends being the busiest for the business of coffins, I got in on a Friday afternoon just when a customer had arrived to pick up a designed coffin in the form of a Bible. That was apparently a coffin for a pastor who was being buried that week-end.

At the rear of the display shop, I was shown a coffin in the form of an eagle. The boys were busy putting finishing touches to it. Apparently, it was going to be picked up the following day (Saturday), for the burial of a chief who died abroad and the body was flown in for the burial ceremony at home.

The designed coffins, incidentally, were not only for home consumption. The shop has been getting export orders as well. Coffin making must be a lucrative venture but how many of our carpenters are going into it?

In my chat with Solomon, I discovered that they sell 5 to 6 coffins each week including the normal coffins. The prices range between GHC1, 400 ($800) and GHC1, 800($1200) depending on the type of wood used with the cheapest selling for as low as GHC 40($25). Expensive wood like Odum, Sapele and Ofram attract higher prices while Wawa is the cheapest in the range. But for a coffin, does it really matter what type of wood is used?

In my curiosity, I sought to know how the idea of making money from coffins has come to be so well established. I was told some history. The business of designed coffins was originally the brain child of the late Kane Kwei, a native of Teshie. He started the business in 1951 in a small workshop at the Teshie village giving employment to some of the youth.

Today, we have four other designed coffin shops in the country all of which learnt their trade from Kane Kwei in Teshie.

All well and good but who would buy a designed coffin? Who for example would buy a coffin modeled in the likeness of a Coke bottle, a cocoa pod or fish? Solomon answered me back with a question. And so I took a guess and my guess was right.

The family and friends of a Coca-Cola distributor or retailer are the ones interested in sending their loved one off in one of the products he or she made a living from. Similarly, the cocoa pod is designed for a cocoa farmer, a fish coffin for a fisherman or fish monger while a tomato box is for a tomato seller. When I asked what designed coffin could be created for a Journalist, I was told that it would either be in the form of a pen, a microphone or a “Graphic”. The Graphic was used as a generic name for a newspaper.

I love to see ingenuity around me and would always want to encourage young entrepreneurs. However, I had mixed feelings with coffin making. How could anyone set up a business so related to someone’s dear loss and seek to make profit out of them? How did my new found friend and his colleagues feel about designing coffins and looking forward to someone dying so they could sell their products?

There obviously is no difference between the coffin maker’s trade and that of any other artisan. There is the market for their services especially in our society where cremation is not that well known. They come in to fulfill a need.

At 27 this is a job Solomon has been doing since leaving Junior High School and he admitted he loved it. He confided in me that it is something he would do till he died and when he died; his designed coffin would be in the shape of a carpenter’s tool. He asked me whether mine would be a pen or a newspaper. I did not have an answer for him. The question took me off guard.

But who really cares for a designed coffin? Some of the designs I saw were too huge for the size of a normal grave that one sees in our public cemeteries. I was told a secret. Parts of an oversized designed coffin would normally be taken off at the cemetery so it could fit the grave.

I was shown how the fish for example, could easily be lowered into a grave if the fins or tail are not able to fit into a grave. Really, don’t we invite troubles for ourselves to the extent that even in death we are creating problems and looking for solutions at the same time?

What really is the point then if a “customer” cannot have the full benefit of their stylish coffin without being disturbed? Well the point is, appearances may look deceptive and there is always a limitation to everything and that includes the way we choose to go, in style or not in style.

*The Writer writes under the column ‘Reality Zone With Vicky Wireko’ in the national dailies.