The City Reliquary is one of our favorite quirky museums in New York City, with notable exhibitions in the past on trash, roller disco, the Coney Island Velodrome, and its annual Ms. Subways pageant. Its latest exhibition, Making a Museum, on while the museum redesigns its permanent collection, features a coffin in the shape of the Empire State Building. The coffin is on loan from its current owner, the very-much alive Sarah Murray who commissioned the coffin in homage to, according to The City Reliquary, “her favorite architectural work and an icon of the city she always aspired to, and now does, live in.
The tradition comes from Ghana, where fantasy coffins or abebuu adekai or “proverb boxes” in the Ga language, have become a worldwide sensation, starting when a chief from the Ga tribe commissioned Ata Owoo, a carpenter, to make a cocoa pod ceremonial palanquin. The chief passed away before the palanquin was finished so it was converted into a coffin, starting a national tradition. Inspired by the cocoa pod coffin, which remains a popular design to this day, an Accra-based carpenter, Seth Kane Kwei of the Kane Kwei Carpentry Workshop, started by designing a coffin in the shape of an airplane for his grandmother, who never flew in one but dreamt of one day taking flight. His work has become internationally renown, following a 1989 exhibition at the Pompidou Center in Paris.
Photo by Beth Haines of The City Reliquary
People commission coffins to reflect anything from their aspirations, like Kane Kwei’s grandmother’s, their social position, their careers or hobbies, or things of import to them, like Murray’s Empire State Building. The City Reliquary notes that people have been buried in things ranging from a giant Coca-Cola bottle to monstrous chickens, to luxury cars. More than coffins, these “are works of art,” the museum highlights.
The Empire State building coffin, made of wood, was constructed and painted by another Ghanaian coffin artist Eric Kpakpo Adotey. Murray used eShopAfrica, a fair trade online craft retailer based in Ghana who could introduce her to a coffin artist and help get the coffin to the United States. Eric had apprenticed himself to a master coffin maker after his parents could not afford to send him to school and is now an entrepreneur with his own business in Accra, has his own apprentices and an open-air showroom. Murray had kept a miniature Empire State Building with her even before she was able to move to New York City, which served as a “lucky charm” she writes in her book Making An Exit: From the Magnificent to the Macabre, How We Dignify the Dead, and a physical representation of her “favourite modern architecture,”
Eric had not heard of or seen the Empire State Building before, so to make the coffin Murray gave him a postcard and a souvenir model. The painted design on the exterior is a reproduction of the painting Stone Falling into Water by renown British painter Kit Barker, a family friend of the Murrays who taught at Skidmore College and California School of Fine Arts. The painting hung in Murray’s house growing up and currently is in her New York City apartment. Murray writes, “Kit’s art has found new expression at the hand of a coffin maker from the distant shores of West Africa. People certainly live on in the most unexpected ways.”
Check out the Empire State Building coffin and other great ephemera in the latest exhibition at The City Reliquary, Making a Museum.
Next, check out the Top 10 Secrets of the Empire State Building.