Some Iowa State University engineering students are auctioning off a customized corn-shaped coffin on eBay to raise money to build a dam at Ullo in Jirapa in the Upper West region of Ghana.
The students are hoping to sell the green- and yellow-painted casket for about $1000 but have already had an offer for $500. The auction is expected to close on April 30.
The coffin was built by Eric Adjetey Anang, a carpenter from Ghana, who carved it during a visit to Ames in September. He made similar trips to Oregon and New Hampshire to make coffins shaped like a salmon and a lobster.
The group has planned several activities to raise at least $15,000 to send students in December to build the dam in the village of Ullo, which receives rainfall only three months a year. Nearly all 800 locals there grow at least some of their own food, which takes time away from other tasks.
Teachers, for example, have to cancel classes sometimes to water their gardens at home. According to the group, a new reservoir could help folks extend the growing season with irrigation.
"We're hoping it has a cascade effect on the whole community," Gettemy said.
The student engineers heard about the village through one of Martin's contacts through the Peace Corps, in a roundabout way he never could have predicted.
Iowans love coffin. A growing number of them are buried in caskets emblazoned with family photos, farm scenes, and Hawkeye or Cyclone logos, a corn-shaped coffin seemed like an obvious choice.
"It's such a big part of the culture," said the coffin project's coordinator, Chris Martin, who teaches furniture design at Iowa State. "I thought it would be a good fit."
Martin and his wife, Tammi, met Anang several years ago during a two-year stint in the Peace Corps in Ghana, where the carpenter runs a noisy shop in a suburb of the capital, Accra. Each week the shop's dozen artisans produce three or four of the fanciful coffins for the country's ethnic Ga people, who send off their relatives in high style. The carpenters have made fish-shaped coffins for fisherman, firetruck-shaped coffins for firefighters, even a plane-shaped coffin for a woman who always wanted to travel. There are coffins shaped like Coke bottles, chickens, cellphones — you name it — all custom-built for hundreds or thousands of dollars.
The fantasy caskets are highly prized by art collectors around the world, but in Ghana, they still serve their original purpose. They're built quickly, displayed quickly, and then covered with dirt.
"It's really important in their culture to pay respects to the ancestors," Martin said. "The people who have passed away have a lot of power in your life, and if you don't treat them well at their funeral, then they won't treat you well for the rest of your life."
Martin described funerals there that last for days, with music and dancing "and, honestly, a lot of drinking."
But even Iowans are putting more of the "fun" in "funerals." More families are foregoing the traditional somber affair for a celebration of their loved one's life. More folks are skipping the customary sermon or scripture-based homily in favor of a program suited to the guest of honor.
"We're seeing a lot of personalization," said funeral director Lynn Ochiltree of Winterset, who has been in the business for two dozen years and serves on the board of the Iowa Funeral Directors Association. "These days, a funeral that's devoid of anything but the pomp and circumstance of a traditional service is kind of unusual."
Aurora Casket Co. sales director John Dukes of Ames estimates that 1 in 5 caskets he sells in his eight-state region displays some sort of personalized option. He's seen a 10 percent increase in those options over the last year.
A casket's lid, or carapace, can be decked out with favorite quotations, vacation photos, military insignias and logos from just about every sports team around, including the Hawkeyes and Cyclones (which, in the case of an accidental or ornery switch, might raise some fans from the dead).
Dukes recalled a University of Iowa fan who had a photo of his bleacher-seat view at Kinnick Stadium stitched into the casket panel in front of his face. An Iowa State fan was buried in a casket painted red and gold by an auto-body shop in Gilbert.
The Ghana connection The options are endless, and so are the costs. Cloth-covered caskets made of particle board or heavy cardboard are $600 or $700. Some of the deluxe models made of rare woods or metals can easily exceed $25,000.
So, really, that corn-shaped coffin is a bargain. The bidding on eBay started Monday at $500.
"We're hoping for $700 or so, but we'd be ecstatic with $1, 000," said Iowa State junior Joe Gettemy of Marion, who belongs to Iowa State's chapter of Engineers Without Borders.