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Monday, May 15, 2006 - Page updated at 12:58 AM

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In Ghana, a grave business has a fanciful side

Chicago Tribune

NUNGUA, Ghana — You can't take it with you, but in Ghana you can take a reminder.

For over a half-century, carpenters have been turning out some of the world's most fanciful personalized coffins for families who want their loved ones to go in style.

Grandpa was a fisherman? How about a 6-foot-long lobster? Uncle loved his soft drinks? A giant Coca-Cola bottle might be just the thing.

"If you want it, we can do it," says Samuel Odai Afotey, 23, the sawdust-covered lead carpenter at Paa Willie's Coffin House. "I like a challenge."

According to local lore, Ghana's industry got its start when an elderly member of a royal family died. His children asked a local carpenter to try to make a coffin shaped like a throne.

Mourners were impressed, and since then orders have been flooding in for burial vessels that would make King Tut envious: red Case tractors for wealthy farmers, oversize microphones for musicians, jets for flight attendants.

"If you don't have an artist's mind, you can't do it," said Afotey, who has been turning chunks of Ghanaian softwood into intricately carved coffins since he was 13. He learned from his father, Paa Willie Mensah, one of the original masters.

Turning out a coffin takes about a week, Afotey said. The cheapest works go for about $500, and the most expensive for $1,000. The shop sells about one a week.

Not everyone buys fantasy coffins in Ghana, a poor country where a $500 price tag is beyond the reach of many. But in this West African nation, which combines devout Christianity with a strong traditional belief in honoring ancestors, a good funeral is an investment and a show of respect.

One master carpenter, Paa Joe Ashong, has recently found another market. He now turns out pricier hardwood versions of his most elaborate coffins — crabs, lions, roosters, cobras, turkeys — to sell to U.S. and European museums. And he sells some of his more fanciful pieces to collectors, who like the idea of a hockey-stick coffin in the hallway or a giant beer bottle as a home bar.

Ashong, who stocks a 6-foot-long Nokia cellphone just in case a cellphone magnate or "somebody who just likes to call" dies, thinks his toughest order was the life-size pregnant woman with the see-through womb he turned out for a deceased gynecologist.

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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