Ghana’s Dancing Pallbearers Are Showing The World How to Grieve

More than an ironic response to the COVID-19 crisis, the meme introduced a powerful Ghanaian mourning ritual to the world and with it some relief.

Dressed in ornate tuxedos, big sunglasses and spotless white gloves, six men lift a coffin to their shoulders and begin an extravagant synchronized dance. They bounce in unison, wave white handkerchiefs and even crawl across the floor while expertly keeping the deceased safely in the air and funeral attendees dancing along.

It's been impossible to avoid Ghana's dancing pallbearers lately. The meme has been everywhere online, copied by comedians, animators, even emergency services in response to the spread of COVID-19

Despite the morbid subject matter, it comes as no surprise that the pallbearers, known as the "Nana Otafrija Pallbearing and Waiting Service" led by Benjamin Aidoo, have risen in popularity on a trajectory paralleling the pandemic's impact on our daily lives.

As people try to find ways to collectively come to terms with the loss of life, normalcy and human connection, the use of the meme has become a grieving process of its own, in the absurd way only the internet can produce. But while it's birthed a strange new online ritual, the origins of the video are linked to a deeply important cultural process for Ghanaians.

Funerals worldwide have been majorly disrupted since March, with people streaming burials or skipping them altogether. For Ghanaians, it's been particularly difficult, as the funeral process is considered key to the spiritual health of the community. What was normally a celebration of life lasting days if not weeks in some cases, have become smaller affairs with very little of the pageantry associated with the pallbearers.

"Ghanaians don't believe when someone dies that's the end of it," says Professor Eve E. Arhin-Sam when reached by phone in Canada. An academic studying Ghanaian funeral traditions, Arhin-Sam explains: "We believe that the spirit lives on and helps to keep the community intact and offers protection to individuals."

The significance of the wider community in commemoration of the dead can't be understated. Certain customs are followed at funeral celebrations to ensure the spirit transitions seamlessly and it's the community's responsibility to make sure they're done correctly

Judged by factors such as the number and social standing of attendees, food offered and spectacle of the ceremony, funerals are an expensive process with the average cost being close to $20,000 dollars. But having a successful funeral is crucial for the community, as Arhin-Sam illustrates. Customs after death, such as pouring libations and traditional dances (though not necessarily those resembling the coffin bearers), can be more complex and detailed in nature depending on the status of the person when they were alive—age, gender and cause of death all impact how the ceremony is performed.

The disruption of this process is especially damaging if the death is considered a 'bad' death. In Akan culture, 'good' deaths are based on the presence of a few key factors. Living to a good age (around 70); dying from natural causes; contributing to your society and having children. These factors allow for easier transitions and less detailed funeral plans, whereas 'bad' deaths, which include dying from infectious diseases, require more complex rituals.

Arhin-Sam explains that the cultural understanding of life and death creates this necessity, as "it is key to [the deceased's] transition because when you come into this world there is no disease associated with you, so it's expected that continues into your death."

Due to early government response, COVID-19 cases in Ghana have been minimal but lockdown has meant families haven't been able to give their loved ones the full ceremony after passing. Talking to Sulley Lansah, the BBC Africa journalist who produced the initial story on the pallbearers that later became a meme, he describes how some people have had to do much smaller private burials.

"Everything has been restricted to private burials of 25 people, even those are very few," says Lansah. "They're very solemn affairs and straight to the point, it just takes 5-10 minutes and they are gone but before it would be a 3 day event."

Ghana's dancing pallbearers - BBC

Despite this option many people are preferring to hold off on this smaller ceremony, electing to leave the bodies of loved ones in morgues and wait for the lockdown to be fully lifted to give the deceased a traditional send off.

To no surprise, the pallbearers' business has been greatly affected. "Three years ago when I met Benjamin he usually had 10 to 20 bookings on the weekend, every weekend," says Lansah. "...he'd be taking bookings from Thursday through Saturday. But now it's only one funeral a week and it has affected the money he is getting."

Funerals are big business in Ghana. The industry is a lynchpin in the local economy, accounting for major tourism hikes from returning diaspora communities and responsible for an entire economic infrastructure around the tradition. Benjamin Aidoo and his band of pallbearers aren't the only workers in the industry being affected, the market for professional mourners—women who sell their sorrow at ceremonies—has become non-existent. Similarly work has dried up for custom coffin makers, importers of traditional funeral cloth, printers of brochures and insurers.

"For one, it's relief. Losing someone is hard, nobody wants to go through that. But [the dancing] is a strategy to help relieve the family of some of the emotions they're going through and now it's not just among Ghanaians—because it's international."

According to Arhin-Sam, for Ghanaians at home and abroad, the disruption has been followed by the necessity to ad-lib and find ways to continue to honour those who have passed. "People are improvising, but the cultural value is not lost in the tradition," she says. "The meaning is already there even though we are not able to do it as we used to."

This also rings true for cultural funerals in Black communities in the US and UK. In Louisiana, the Black population has been disproportionately affected by the coronavirus, with Black people making up 59 percent of deaths while representing only 32 percent of the population. As a result, second line jazz funerals in New Orleans have been cancelled. Typically upbeat affairs celebrated with brass band processions, dancing and singing, "the second line" has the same cultural significance for its community as traditional funeral ceremonies do for West Africans, with which they share a lineage.

But in the tradition of making a way when there is none, Brass-a-holics bandleader Winston 'Trombone' Turner has honoured those passed with a socially distanced version of the ceremony. Similarly, in the UK where black people are approximately 4x more likely to die from COVID-19, Jamaican communities have honoured the Nine Night ceremony—a tradition where relatives and friends gather at the deceased's families home on the 9th day after their passing—by gathering online to share the same compassion and community that the would have provided present in real life.

Funeral Memes

David Kessler, the co-creator Kubler-Ross' 5 Stages of Grief, explains in a recent interview, the different types of mourning we're going through as a result of the Coronavirus, including something he calls "anticipatory grief." Usually identified when the loss of a loved one seems inevitable, in this context, it's about the uncertainty of the future, a possible world where our regular traditions are at risk of disappearing. "With a virus, this kind of grief is so confusing for people," says Kessler. "Our primitive mind knows something bad is happening, but you can't see it." The invisibility of the threat makes it all the more difficult to accept, and near impossible to make sense of, making finding "meaning"—a 6th stage Kessler adds in the interview —such a difficult but necessary task.

As we come to accept the rupturing of the old world, we all will inevitably try to understand what we're living through, and find meaning in the things that the COVID-19 pandemic has illuminated. Sometimes those meanings present themselves in unexpected places. Arhin-Sam suggests, for some, the popularity of the pallbearers is down to people receiving some closure for the losses the world is experiencing.

"For one, it's relief. Losing someone is hard, nobody wants to go through that. But [the dancing] is a strategy to help relieve the family of some of the emotions they're going through and now it's not just among Ghanaians—because it's international. Everyone knows about them. So watching them, you're grieving but also in a way, excited about what they're doing. They're taking some of your grief away by providing a source of entertainment."