by Matthew Link
Death never takes a vacation away from us. It’s tied to our feet like an arrogant shadow wherever we go, as a constant reminder of all the things we’ve left behind.
And who wants to visit death on vacation? Believe it or not, a visit to Ghana’s coffin makers is on most tourists’ itineraries. On the dusty, honk-echoing, chicken-crossing, exhaust-fumed streets right outside of Accra, the capital of the English-speaking West African country, one tribe called the Ga is renowned for their casket masterpieces. They come in a variety of corpse-sized styles: in the shape of fish, elephants, guns, sewing machines, pens, Bibles, guns, airplanes, cars, Coca Cola bottles, beer bottles, cacao beans, peppers, lobsters, ears of corn, cell phones, tractors, microphones, roosters, cigarettes, even replicas of stores. Pretty much any object or thing you can think up. They are painstakingly painted, meticulously designed, and even in the face of death, strikingly lifelike. My favorite was a shiny, polished uterus made for a deceased gynecologist.
The Ga may be a Christian tribe, but they know the primordial animist power of symbols, those immense unspoken icons that were downloaded into our DNA and created before the world was born. The Ga’s caskets are a direct, unflinching correlation to the person’s life - their work, their passions, their vices, their quirks. Corpses are curled up or folded into these awkwardly-shaped homes of the afterlife, and the casket makers must certainly lament that their prized art is buried deep underground after so many back-breaking weeks of workmanship. It’s like a daily funeral for their own creations.
In a country where many people live on barely $2 a day, no expense is spared for the most important part of life: death. The coffins cost between $300 and $800, and international collectors and museums snatch these symbols up for $2,000 or more for the smaller made-to-order models that can be shown off in wealthy homes. Jimmy Carter visited Accra and bought three coffins: an eagle, a fish, and a bell pepper. (They must have been out of peanut-shaped caskets that week.)
How can something as complex and long and riddled and mysterious as a human life could be summed up in one tangible object, no matter how artistic? How do we decide what vehicle we will ride in to that other planet where our spirits decide to reside after all of this is said and done? Life is a series of choices we don’t want to make. The hardest decision in my mind is to precisely calculate what each of us is standing for, whether we realize what that is or not.
Like the ferryman over the River Styx, it was James who guided me to the casket makers. He was in early thirties, skinny, had few teeth, and didn’t like to speak much. But James had a grin that was always mischievous and knowing, and a laugh that lasered in on irony. I would make some inane joke like, “My white skin blends right in here, doesn’t it? Everyone must think I’m local.” Then James would crack up and throw his head back and then wiggle his index finger at me. “You are funny, Mr. Matthew.”
And like a silent ferryman, James presented the edges of a far off land rather than clarify the country itself. Not everything needed an immediate answer, he decided. Observation is just as powerful as engagement, if not more. James was kind of like life itself, which proves her existence through evidence rather than explanation.
James and I would just walk around or drive somewhere and not talk at all. For tens of minutes, which is hard for me. I want to use my tour guides like web sites, searching them for all their worth. I’m a writer; I need answers. How does one tell one tribe from another? Where do the Ghanaian TV soap operas get made? Why are there hand-painted portraits of Bill Clinton on the side of the road? Are those boys in school uniforms sitting there drinking palm wine? Can we join them?
James was from the Ewe tribe, a clan who clung on to their raw beliefs where other African groups had floated away into the future. I watched the Ewe dance, drum, and sing under the dusty moonlight in James’ low-key village outside of Accra. It was a hamlet of mud walls, open courtyards, TV antennas, strolling goats, women selling peanuts by lantern at night, and frequent funerals.
One weekend I was there, there were three public odes to the departed: one Muslim and two Christian. Funerals in Ghana are like Fourth of July celebrations in the States. They’re loud parties where knowing the deceased is far from a requirement. Tables and tents are erected, loud speakers blare, buffet tables are arranged, music scrambles its way through the air. Children stand in stoic groups and stare. The festivities roll on through the night, the day, and the night again. The family of the deceased plunges into great debt to pay for the whole shebang, since the cost can skyrocket to a year’s salary or more. Guests, no matter how distant a relative or friend, are expected to fork over some cash to offset that pricey price tag. Americans love their costly fantasy weddings, tied up with a ribbon and a Hallmark card and the hushed specter of divorce; Ghanaians are willing to hedge their bets that the next world is more imperative, and are willing to pay the price to make sure the send-off works.
It was appropriate that James-without-explanation steered me to the great funerals of Ghana. No one seemed to care I was a visitor. Crashing funerals is a way of life here. They’re community entertainment, and I was evidently part of the show. Grandmas grabbed at my white flesh and dragged me out on to the open-air dance floor, where a bright sash was flung over me and where I was expected to mimic the specific Ewe “chicken dance” (as I liked to call it), where one flaps one’s elbows to the delight of the roaring, hysterical children.
It wasn’t all fun and games of course - funerals are meant to be morose, after all. The prerequisite mother or wife held court by inhabiting a large chair and dramatically dabbing her eyes as everyone came to pay their respects to her. Some mourners held long, passionate conversations with the dead. It seemed more an elaborate, extroverted show than the mute existentialism of American memorial services.
One Christian funeral I went to was in a cement church that looked bombed-out, with large holes in the walls where mangy dogs wandered through and a roof with unintentional skylights. Taking a nod from the Southern missionaries who evidently founded the place, the locals dressed to the nines in fancy Western taffeta dresses and big hats, singing “Amazing Grace” in their native tongue and crying loudly in front of the flower-draped coffin. Who am I to be a funeral critic? But I must say it felt like the emulation of an idea rather than the guts of a vital ritual.
At the uneven, rocky, sloping graveyard afterwards, a number of men struggled to put the casket in the ground (this one was plain and boxlike, alas). A huge crowd meandered behind it. I supposed few of them actually knew the man. James remained trademark silent while we watched, letting it all seep in, only stopping to answer a friend’s greeting along the way.
I saw one man in a brightly-colored shirt strike his chest with his fist, kick a tree, and cry out at the top of his lungs some words half sung and half spoken.
I asked James for the translation. He cocked his head, furrowed his brow, listened carefully, and finally said, “The man is a friend of the deceased, and he is saying that you should be good to your friends, since you don’t know how long they will be with you.”
Like James, I finally shut up. This was the real thing, after all. I wish someone had thrashed against a tree and screamed with pain at the funeral for my mother, or my grandmother, or my aunt. It’s like having a tooth extracted without Novocain. Someone should have kicked a tree to the ground, stomping on it until every leaf was annihilated and only pulp left. Haven’t we earned the right to lash out against it all? Especially in the face of the one final thing we have no control over at all?
I learned to love the Ghanaians’ worshipping of the spectacle of death, their fearless embracing of the razors of it all. I quickly decided I wanted to be buried here. It’s up to us to find our own personal spiritual homelands, after all. That’s why we travel in the first place, right? Here in Ghana my lifeless body wouldn’t need to wander or go anywhere. I would finally be complete, with no parts missing.
Maybe the Ghanaians got the conclusiveness of death since what was behind them was so cloudy. In Africa, with its lack of public documents, I met many people who weren’t even sure when they were born, not even sure of their age. But they nevertheless wore defiant silkscreen T-shirts of their dearly departed’s face, with a guesstimate of their birth and death years. The garmets acted as portable, wearable tombstones. It was a whole life splayed out, summed up in one fell swoop like the coffins. I heard stories that some Africans actually bury their family members under their house in order to keep their spirits happy and close. A local proverb proudly states, “The family loves the corpse.”
Another proclaims, “Life is a march toward the grave.” Death and life, always dancing the tango together, or drumming a rhythmic, never-ending beat under that ample African sky that reaches easily into the universe. Funny that we waste so much time on things that end up burnt in the fire at the end of the day.
I once read a James Bond book as a kid, where Ian Fleming wrote, “You only live twice. Once when you are born, and once when you look death in the face.” The Ghanaians stared directly into the immense beyond where others turn away. Maybe that’s why they seemed so joyful at the end of the day.
There really is no point in cosmic cowardice.
I still can’t figure out what the shape of my casket will be. It’s easier for someone else to choose. A pen, a passport, a ship, a laptop?
Maybe a freshly-printed boarding pass makes the most sense. I think I will be looking forward to my final destination.