Seventy-two-year-old Paa Joe started making coffins in 1962 while serving as an apprentice with a master builder of caskets.
Some may label him a carpenter, but Paa Joe has always considered himself an artist who sculpts with wood.
In the late 1970s he decided to specialize in making “fantasy coffins”. They are known as ‘Abebuu Adekai’ in the Ga language – it means ‘the receptacle of proverbs’.
If you go for a funeral and you see it displayed, you might think it’s a joke but it isn’t a joke.
But Paa Joe says his caskets also have very practical elements to their design. The shapes he carves represent the professions and careers of the deceased and so could be made into sailing ships for sailors, airplanes for pilots, tanks for soldiers, or fish for fishermen.
His large body of work also includes coca cola bottles, chickens, cars, and even a lion.
Other coffin makers in the Greater Accra region have made coffin-sized replicas of hairdryers for hairdressers, bottles of whisky for bartenders, and even a giant talcum powder bottle called ‘Paradis’.
Paa Joe says the coffins are traditionally displayed with the deceased inside them before the burial and stand as a celebration of the departed’s life.
Over the years Joe’s caskets have been bought by US presidents, exhibited in art galleries around the world and photographed regularly making Paa Joe one of the most renowned coffin makers in the world.
As a result, museums have commissioned him to make specific pieces whilst Ghanaians continue to come to him to bury their loved ones.
Some of Paa Joe’s creations were exhibited at the Shika Shika art fair that was part of the two-week long annual Chale Wote street festival being held this month in Accra.
“So these kinds of things, if you go for a funeral and you see it displayed, you might think it’s a joke but it isn’t a joke. It isn’t a joke at all because it represents your profession and you must leave with the same, hence the reason it will be used to bury you in. So when you go to the funeral you might think it’s a joke but the deceased is inside this coffin,” said Paa Joe.
Ghanaian carpenters started making these stylized caskets in the 1950s, some say as a way to express a belief in the afterlife, while also giving those left behind, a unique way to reflect on the life of the deceased.