BOOKS | Review: Funeral Fashion in Ghana

Funerals in Ghana are an expensive, thriving industry that reflect and reveal the intimate relationship between life and death in West Africa. As Prof. Irene K. Odotei writes in the introduction to Funeral Fashion in Ghana (Edition Patrick Frey), “To Ghanians, death is not the final stage of a man’s life; it is a transition from the known world of mortals to the unknown world of the ancestors. The belief systems of the people of Ghana—the tangible and intangible cultural heritage that comprises their values, their political, economic, and social systems, their creativity and aesthetic sense—are played out in ever aspect of death: from the moment of death to the burial.”

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In many parts of the nation, funeral ceremonies last for several days and display an important aspect of the country’s culture. These elaborate celebrations are part of the mourning process, but they also function as a platform for social exchange. Death brings the living together to celebrate, to mourn, and to commiserate. In this context, the clothing of the mourner’s plays a central role. The clothing styles range from traditional to contemporary, and are influenced by changing fashion trends. Funeral attire and its signs and symbols visually display the character of Ghanaian society.

Swiss costume designer Lisa Meier has made several trips to Ghana, attending funerals in different regions and capturing the ceremonies and the mourning attire in photographs of great immediacy. Her photographs illustrate the profound significance of death as part of the experience of life, as a way to pay respect to the departed who now join the ancestors in eternal rest. They also reveal the way in which the funeral ceremonies act as a space for social and political bonding, and though we do not know the specifics of any particular photograph we feel the spirit of communion and community in every image.

As Prof. Odotei reveals, “Funerals have now become an opportunity to show off fashionable outfits. The idea is that one should be stylish and fashionable and wear expensive clothes, possibly to attract the opposite sex. Funerals are said to be places for ‘boy meets girl,’ ‘man meets woman.’ There is a joke that some women practice crying in front of the mirror so that they can look their vest, even when they are crying at the funeral.”

In this way, we may observe Meier’s photographs through a larger lens and consider how death brings us full circle, back to the beginning again. Those who live continue to soldier on, secure in the knowledge that there is a greater cycle, one with no beginning or end.