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Mathers Museum Exhibit Showcases 'Fantasy Coffins' From Ghana

Making one coffin can take anywhere from a week to a month. (Sean Hogan, WFIU/WTIU News)

Bloomington’s Mathers Museum is hosting an exhibit of fantasy coffins from Ghana. The Ga people of Ghana make coffins in the shape of animals, objects and food to bury their dead in.

After the Ga people became required to bury their dead in cemeteries and use mortuaries in the mid-20th century, they wanted to use this process to make public statements about their ancestors.

Kristin Otto is a PhD candidate in the IU anthropology department and a research associate with the Mathers Museum. She curated the fantasy coffins exhibit after the museum received a donation from an Indianapolis collector.

And she went to Ghana to do research in the Paa Joe Coffinworks workshop.

“They’re made in shapes that maybe represent that person’s occupation. So a fish for a fisherman, to honor their lives’ work,” Otto says. “It could also be a shape that is relevant to the family, like there’s family symbols such as a lion.”

Otto says the artists at Paa Joe Coffins don’t use measurements to create the coffins, but instead use their intuitive senses. That's why it may take between eight and 10 years to become a master coffin maker.

The coffins are made up of pieces of wood plank placed inside a frame. The wood is sanded down and covered with putty, then is sanded down again and painted.

Making one coffin can take anywhere from a week to a month.

“Sometimes they require a little more thought. One time a tomato farmer wanted a tomato-shaped coffin, and a tomato’s kind of circular,” Otto says. “So they had to think a little more about how they would go about doing it.”

Otto says coffins commissioned by collectors usually require more detail.

The exhibit will be on display through Dec. 16. 

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The Ga people of Ghana make coffins in the shape of animals, objects and food to bury their dead in. (Sean Hogan, WFIU/WTIU News)
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