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For Ghana's dead, a pine box just won’t do

Eric Borketey, whom Mr. Laryea taught and mentored in the tree-cutter trade, brandishes a bladeless chainsaw as a sign of respect. Here, he has paused the pallbearers so that he can let the chainsaw reverberate against the coffin - which has been designed to resemble a cut-down tree.

Iain Marlow/The Globe and Mail

Ataa Adjei Laryea's funeral was fairly low key until his mourners fired up the gas-powered chainsaw.

In a narrow lane packed with people, in this fishing town just down the coast from the Ghanaian capital of Accra, Mr. Laryea's cousin Eric Borketey brandishes the bladeless chainsaw above his head, revving it repeatedly. He says he's showing respect for his older cousin while giving the neighbourhood a final reminder that Mr. Laryea cut trees for a living.

"Some people don't know," Mr. Borketey says as the chainsaw envelops him in a cloud of white fumes. "So I use this."

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But if that doesn't refresh memories, there's always Mr. Laryea's spectacular custom-designed coffin: It is meticulously hand-carved into the shape of a felled tree.

Funerals in Ghana have long been extravagant affairs that celebrate the life of the deceased in song, prayer and all-night gatherings, and by way of ingeniously carved coffins in the shape of lobsters, boats and planes that have won Ghanian artisans worldwide fame.

The funerals reflect deeply felt traditional belief systems, which vary by ethnic group and involve the worship of various gods and the pouring of libations. Now, they also offer a window onto how the country is changing, as incomes rise and imported religion makes inroads in long-held traditional beliefs about death.

As professions evolve and the middle class expands, the bespoke coffins are more likely to be cars (for drivers) or houses (for landlords) than fish (for fisherman). Bible coffins are in vogue this year, reflecting the growing influence of Christianity. Funeral styles vary by ethnic group and involve the worship of various gods and the pouring of libations. Ethnic Ga communities around Accra are known for fantastical coffins, while Ashante funerals in Ghana's booming "gold belt" are known for their sheer size. Whatever the origin, and however much wealth is on display, they are likely to be loud and exuberant.

For Mr. Laryea's family, his death at the age of 95 – more than 33 years longer than the average for a man here – is not something to be too sad about. He was born decades before the Gold Coast gained independence from Britain and was a witness to history as Ghana's first president, Kwame Nkrumah, shook the continent with his pan-African exhortations. He worked as a fisherman before sawing trees and died with two children, 16 grandchildren, and eight great-grand children. He also lived in many places across Ghana, which is why neighbours in his birthplace of Teshie need such resonant reminders of who he was.

And in Teshie on the night of Mr. Laryea's funeral, resonant was an understatement. A looming noise ban meant about a dozen funerals were held the same weekend, each one vying to be the loudest. Mr . Laryea's family, concerned about the possibility of silence, hired a professional mourner, who had wailed eulogies since the all-night wake the night before. "A big tree has fallen!" she screamed, tears streaming down her cheeks.

But a rented sound system's 21/2-metre-high speaker stack soon drowned her out, saturating the alleyways with reggae-tinged gospel. Then, the pallbearers hoisted Mr. Laryea's coffin and, followed by at least 100 mourners, paraded him onto the main road, clapping and dancing. Mr. Laryea's procession dwarfed all the others it passed en route to a burial ground near the sea.

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A week before Mr. Laryea's funeral, Boris Bokorvi, an apprentice coffin maker, was sweating over a pile of curled wood shavings. "The guy who is going in here is a woodcutter," Mr. Bokorvi says as he planed the last plank and fit it into the coffin's base.

Mr. Bokorvi travelled from neighbouring Togo to learn his trade at Kane Kwei Carpentry Works, the most famous of Teshie's coffin workshops, crowded with carved coffins of chickens (for mothers), lobsters (for fishermen chiefs), hoes (for farmers), and wrenches (for mechanics). One of its exquisite fish coffins was scooped up two years ago by the Royal Ontario Museum for its permanent collection, and Eric Anang, whose family owns the business, was busy assembling a cast of coffins bound for a festival in Denmark that includes a Lego brick, a Tuborg bottle and a Vestas windmill.

Mr. Anang, a third-generation coffin maker, says his grandfather started it all. As the story goes, an elderly woman relative who lived in the shadow of Ghana's international airport in the early 1950s always dreamed of taking off in one of the planes. She died without ever flying, so Mr. Anang's grandfather built one she could fly into her grave. Then orders started pouring in. The coffins now fetch between $600 (U.S.) and $1,500 (the price of Mr. Laryea's), a steep price in a country where the gross national income per capita is around $1,400. But banks in Ghana offer funeral loans.

"A lot of people spend a lot of money on funerals rather than sending their children to school, so imagine how important it is," Mr. Anang says.

Funerals in Ghana are also an integral part of the social fabric. "A lot of men go to funerals to find a wife," says Akosua Dei-Anang, a 20-year-old business administration student. "You get a lot of flirting that happens at funerals," she says, putting the emphasis on "a lot."

The funeral last year for her father, a prominent lawyer and village chief, required four months of planning and had about 2,000 guests. It also featured some behind-the-scenes tension between her Christian family and members of the extended traditional clan who wanted to sacrifice goats.

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Tension – between traditional beliefs and imported Christianity – has become more apparent to Mr. Anang as he travels the world to art shows. "Religion in Africa has taken a lot away from us," he says.

Mr. Anang says he carved 25 coffins in the shape of Bibles last year. This year, he's already built five Bible coffins and two more are taking shape in his shop, even though some Christian Ghanaians have criticized what are known as "design" coffins as no more than a "fetish." And despite having invented the trend, Mr. Anang says, his design-coffin-building Christian grandfather was buried in an ordinary coffin.

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