THIERRY SECRETAN photographed these Ghanaian coffins, which - shaped as birds and animals, even aeroplanes and peppers - are things to die for. Text by AMANDA MITCHISON
Inside this hen, carved in the workshop of the master carpenter Kane Kwei, lie the remains of the redoubtable Mary Deddeh Attoh, an 84- year-old businesswoman who was once a power very much to be reckoned with in the suburb of Dansoman in Accra. Attoh left behind 11 children, 82 grandchildren and 60 great-grandchildren. So 11 little carved orange chicks were placed underneath the hen.

In Ghana, funerals are usually raucous affairs, marked with singing, dancing and a vast consumption of beer and schnapps. But this was a dignified and calm burial. The oration was given by the Methodist pastor standing behind a small table in the family courtyard. Afterwards, the hen was carried in a procession through the street to the graveyard.

Normally, such a service would have been held in a church, but Mary Deddeh Attoh's family, by selecting the hen-shaped coffin, had foregone this possibility. The Catholic and Protestant churches of Ghana believe, quite rightly, that Kane Kwei's carved coffins smack of fetishism and have banned all but his Bible-shaped creations.

Kane Kwei insists that they have no connection with older Ghanaian or African customs. Yet coffins in the shape of lances, knives and birds' beaks are known to have been made in Zaire at the turn of the century. It is likely that some folk mem-ory lived on in the fishing village of Teshie, outside Accra, where in 1922 Kana Kwei was born and later apprenticed as a carpenter to his elder brother, Kane Adjetei.

In the Fifties, it was still the custom for the chief of Teshie to appear at public occasions riding in a palanquin shaped and painted like an eagle to represent Sakumo, the main god of the Ga tribe to which the villagers belong. The story goes that the chief of a neighbouring village was so impressed by the palanquin that he commissioned Ata Owoo, the most respected carpenter in Teshei and the carver of the original eagle shape, to make him one, too - only this time in the shape of a cocoa pod, symbolising the source of his wealth, since Ghana was then the world's biggest exporter of cocoa. When the chief died, his family decided to use it as a coffin instead. Ata Owoo went on to make other coffins in the shape of eagles and cocoa pods, but it was not until Kane Kwei started that carving coffins became a significant local business.

In 1951, the grandmother of Kane Kwei and Kane Adjetei died. She had always dreamt of flying, so her grandsons decided to make her an aeroplane-shaped coffin. Kane Kwei opened a workshop behind his wife's house, in the old part of the town, and hired an apprentice, a giant called Denfu. He began carving coffins out of a light, highly workable wood called obeche. These are complicated structures made up of some 300 separate pieces. Today, a finished coffin will cost 80,000 cedi (pounds 44), about two months salary for the average Ghanaian urban worker.

At first, Kane Kwei worked only for the old people of his own tribe. But his popularity grew. Clients came wanting coffins representing every symbol of prosperity and status: eagles if the deceased was a chief, a Mercedes Benz if he or she was very rich; but it could be a cocoa pod, a fish, a canoe, a cow or an onion - whatever had made the deceased prosperous. Had Robert Maxwell been a member of the Ga tribe, perhaps he would have been put to rest in a rolled-up newspaper; Samantha Fox, no doubt, in a giant brassiere.

In 1962, when a new port complex was built at the neighbouring fishing village of Tema, Kane Kwei moved into a new house and workshop beside a service station on the new road from Accra. The business was now prospering, and the carpenter had a handful of apprentices, including his nephew Paa Joe, who was to become his most prominent student. They expanded their repertoire to crayfish and lobsters, bright sardines with curly smiles, and lions bearing a remarkable resemblance to Dougal from The Magic Roundabout. "The children of a well-known university teacher couldn't decide which shape of coffin to chose for their father," says Kane Kwei, "so I suggested a parrot with a biro in his beak. Now the parrot has become a favourite model for academic families."

In the early Seventies, Kane Kwei was "discovered" by a Los Angeles gallery owner, Vivian Burns, who started to show his work in the States. And, in 1989, one of his Mercedes Benz coffins was displayed at the Pompidou Centre in Paris.

Shortly after these photographs were taken, Kana Kwei died. Paa Joe, who now runs his own workshop, built a rectangular coffin for his old master. In the four corners he carved a saw, a hammer, a chisel and a set square. As Paa Joe had hoped, the coffin was sufficiently orthodox to pass muster with the Methodist minister and the funeral was held in the local church. But, as the procession wended its way to the cemetery, Kane Kwei's box coffin was followed by several brilliant examples which his sons had made for exhibition in America. Kane Kwei was laid to rest attended by a giant crab, a lobster, a tiger, a cow, a hen, a motorboat, a canoe and a Mercedes Benz, complete with number plate and leopardskin upholstery.

'Going into Darkness: Fantastic Coffins from Africa' by Thierry Secretan is published by Thames and Hudson on 12 June, at pounds 16.95