Friday, 3 February 2012

Going out in style!

Are there ever days in which you simply want to curl up into a ball and die? On a variation of such a theme, one Ghanaian woman has decreed that on her death she wishes to spend eternity with her corpse curled up into the foetal position and placed inside an egg-shaped coffin.
At the weekend I met up for a coffee with the Filmmaker on London’s Southbank. It seems our film is going to be shown in Milan again. I wonder if they will use the same trailer as before which featured, amongst other things, my good self in a steel boned crimson corset. There was a time when I was a frequent visitor to the Royal National Theatre on the Southbank, back in the days before it was granted its regal prefix. As we searched for somewhere to have a drink we realised that both the Royal Festival Hall and the Queen Elizabeth Hall were taking part in that weekend’s Festival for the Living. In reality the festival was about attitudes to death. The Filmmaker jokingly said that the festival was quintessentially English. I disagreed. Death has become a taboo subject. Modern homes would have little use for the wake-table in the Music Room at Spencer House. Few people die at home nowadays and even when they do the body is usually quickly whisked away by undertakers until the day of the funeral.

Many years ago I determined that I would have no funeral. My body will be cremated without ceremony. If I were to change my mind I would be tempted to call upon the services of the coffins makers of Ghana and in particular those who make elaborate coffins for the Ga people of Accra. Since the 1950s they have been inspired to create the most incredible coffins, which reflect an aspect of the deceased’s personality. One of the foremost proponents of such coffins is the Paa Joe workshop.  They made the coffins on display in the foyer at the Royal Festival Hall. I was somewhat relieved to discover that all the coffins had been specially commissioned by the Jack Bell Gallery as works of art in their own right: no-one would be taking up permanence residence in them after the exhibition had ended.
I later realised that the display of such funerary works of art was in keeping with the treatment of the stone memorial to Theodosia Louisa, Countess of Liverpool who had died almost two centuries before.Theodosia Louisa was the wife to the then Prime Minister when she died in the 1820s. Although she was buried elsewhere, it was decided to place the monument in All Saints church, Kingston where her husband had once been Lord Lieutenant.  In the 19th century her seated statue was so admired as a work of art it was for a while exhibited at Somerset House, immediately across the water from the present day Southbank complex.

The Ghanaian coffins are first made into a basic canoe shape using planks of local softwood. Then the craftsmen use various implements to fashion the coffins into the desired final shape. The whole process can take up to three months, requiring the deceased to be kept on ice at the undertakers in the meantime. This would explain why the tradition only really took off in the 1950s, when modern refrigeration made the delay to the burial feasible in lieu of the mummification techniques of the Ancient Egyptians. The Ga people believe both in reincarnation and in the ability of the dead to affect the well being of the living. Thus, it is important to give the deceased a fine send-off.
I could see how a body would fit inside the lion and the exotic fruit. I was less certain about the Rolls Royce or the other car. Still, if I should ever find myself a passenger in either of them at least I won't have to struggle with the seat belt or work out how to operate the door handle as I am sometimes wont to do.
The Rolls is a copy of a coffin made by the Paa Joe workshop for a client who was buried in the garden of their home. 
The egg shaped coffin is a replica of one made for a living Ghanaian woman who, it is to be hoped, will have a good few years left before she will ever require to use it. The shape of her coffin ties in with the Ga people’s notions of reincarnation and rebirth.
I did not see any note about the Viking boat but the cork and wine bottle opener was a pure flight of fancy by the gallery owners, who commissioned the coffins. In the past I have seen such coffins in the shape of aeroplanes and calculators. Mine would of course be in the form of a Brimstone Butterfly, fluttering away to that great blog in the sky.

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