Six elegantly dressed men performing unique dance moves... dancing with a coffin! A few weeks ago the video of this particular funeral service with dances and music in an atmosphere far from sad has spread in the social media. Protagonist of this viral phenomenon is a group of Ghanaian men whose "performance" is better known to the public as Coffin dance, even becoming a meme. Leaving aside for a moment the more or less appreciable (depending on sensibilities) black humour, what lies behind this new web curiosity? Before talking about the strange Ghanaian dancers, it is possible to take the opportunity to understand something more about this custom, which is not born in recent times.
In ancient times, ritual dances on farewell occasions were common to very different cultures. They were practiced in various ways, for example by Extruscans, Romans, Egyptians and even in ancient China. Some of these funerary events over the centuries and the changing social customs have merged into traditions of different kinds, such as folklore. In Italy an example of this little known type is the "ball of the poor woman" originating in the area of the Ligurian Apennines riding the so-called Four Provinces (Alessandria, Pavia, Genoa and Piacenza). Another example among the most famous is the jazz funeral in New Orleans which has its roots in the traditions imported by African slaves to the American continent, who accompanied the deceased with songs and dances from their homeland. The reason for the ancient practices is due to the different interpretation of the rite compared to modern civilization, where the funeral is conceived (with due exceptions) as a moment of sadness and loss.
In the past it was not unusual to celebrate the death because it marked a moment of passage towards a version of the afterlife that changed according to the context and in which the deceased could somehow "be reborn" and be happy. An example of this type that is still relevant today is the funeral celebrated by the Ashanti people in Ghana. The body is carefully washed and prepared by the women of the family, while the men take care of the preparations which can take several days, all in order to make the moment as dignified as possible. The Ashanti believe that once they are dead they reunite with their ancestors in a new life, and therefore it should be lived as a moment of celebration.
Going back to the present day and the Coffin dance, it must be said immediately that this is nothing new. It all starts with a 2017 BBC report (Ghana's dancing pallbearers bring funeral joy) by journalist Sulley Lansah in which the creator of the initiative, Benjamin Aidoo - the man at the head of the funeral procession - simply explains that the choreography is the result of requests from customers who preferred something more eventful to give their last farewell to their loved ones (as confirmed by a woman interviewed talking about her mother's funeral). The service also states how Aidoo, with this simple stunt, has given work to many people, not without sacrifices due primarily to the purchase of the necessary elegant clothes. Although Ghana has made important economic progress in recent years, the general situation for the population remains linked to poverty. According to a 2018 UN report, the main reason is the very low percentage of state spending on social policies.
Finally, the background music (Astronomy of 2016, by Vincetone and Tony Igy) accompanying the social video is not the original one, but it is an addition aimed at creating a meme that would appeal to the general public. We must admit that for now the intent is perfectly successful, giving considerable visibility to Benjamin Aidoo and his "dancing gravediggers". Coffin dance is certainly not the most bizarre thing you can see in Ghana at a funeral. In 2012 the BuzzFeed website published a collection of photos of the most unthinkable coffins chosen by some people to "leave" in style, such as those in the shape of Mercedes, turtle or piano.
Cover picture: Funeral of a slave of African origin on a plantation in Suriname (mid 19th century). Source: Tropenmuseum, part of the National Museum of World Cultures.