Traveling by plane used to be the part of the adventure of getting from point A to point B where one could sort of recalibrate: kick up your feet, have a cocktail, eat a decent square of lasagna with a dinner roll, wash it down with some cab, maybe watch a movie, and then snooze. Shit, I though flying was fun.
On a recent trip, I ended up with bulkhead seats. It felt pretty luxurious not to feel the seats in front of me, no dome of a fellow passenger’s head within stroking distance. The cabin was noticeably hot; the steward, of whose seat was directly opposite, fanned himself, with a faint “glow” on his brow. Small talk led to a causal mention of his mother’s passing ten years prior. That little conversational kernel laid the foundation for an oral account of his book about his Mamma. “Mira,” he said, “I don’t know why I feel so comfortable telling you all this.” I don’t know either, but I have a way of welcoming these conversations. I’d like to say it was a freak occurrence, but it’s practically the norm.
Gabriel, the steward, gave a day-by-day blow of “the final 21 days.” The diagnosis: leukemia. Blood tests, the shock and disbelief of the doctors that his mother could still be standing, the tear that rolled down her cheek as he spoke to her in a coma, and the sister who opted to spend the final days somewhere else. There was a phone call to his former girlfriend who was in the mortuary business, whose morbid magnificence had been requested by mother. No detail would be missed: the outfit, the make-up, and, of course, making sure her “titties were pushed up high”. When his mother finally passed, Gabriel insisted upon being present for the preparation of the casket viewing. He described holding his mother’s head to keep it from bobbling while the blood was drained from her body. For him, it was deeply moving. His childhood sweetheart spent hours on her make up. And then, as if on cue, he plucked out an envelope filled with photographs from his satchel, among which was an image of his mother in her casket, perfectly posed and looking her best. Really, he felt so proud of her, and proud of himself too, for the dignity she had and for his part in helping her to maintain it post mortem.
The ritual of preparing the newly deceased for an “existence” post life is both incredibly touching, and quite fascinating. Neither of my paternal grandparents had a ceremonial burial. There was a memorial, a gathering of old friends, immediate and extended families, where dots were connected with lofty tales. When my mother’s father died, she chose not to look in his casket, because she wanted to remember him as he was when last they had been together. Death is the unavoidable rite of passage, and how we choose to release the body is a task for the living. For some, it is has a religious base, but ultimately, it’s about paying tribute to the deceased. It was this remarkable and most unexpected conversation with a steward that made me think of the masters of casket making in Ghana, West Africa, of whose whimsical creations are an inspiration. Their modern day sarcophagi, like those of ancient Egypt, reveal the status and identity of its inhabitant. It is also part of their tradition to garnish the casket with offerings for a rich afterlife.
For the Ga people of Accra in Ghana, life continues after death. Ancestors carry powers that influence the lives of those the deceased leave behind and can offer prosperity. While the funeral is approached as an investment, it is almost always celebratory. Tears of sadness and joy intermingle naturally. Sending off the deceased in a dignified manner has, since the 50’s, come to include an artisanal casket designed to match their profession, or another telling trait, like a love for alcohol or cigarettes. Caskets are carved as: a bottle of beer for the beer lover, a fish for the fisherman, a Mercedes for a driver. No expense is spared.
The first known masters of “fantasy coffins” were Kane Kwei (1922-1992), and his assistant Paa Joe (born 1947). Kwei left his life on cocoa plantations with hopes of pursuing a career in construction. At the same time, a fisherman and prominent family member passed away. To honor him, it has been claimed that Kwei built a casket in the shape of a fish. And here a tradition was set into place. It may cost a family a year’s salary to commission a casket, but it is treated as a required homage and a way of securing a family’s status.
Each culture has a unique was of honoring the dead. While I myself do not believe in life after death, I suspect I am not alone in the hope that I won’t soon be forgotten. Better yet, I would like to be remembered in a positive light. Wouldn’t you?