The Nana Otafrija pallbearers might look slick, but they are not afraid to get dirty. Their signature moves, carried out with a coffin in tow, include dropping to all-fours and crawling in unison; or lying on their backs, the coffin balanced on top of them, legs moving in time to the music – as though they have been crushed by the casket.
The dancing pallbearers first became famous in 2017 when their so-called “coffin dance” featured in a BBC documentary. Then, someone added an EDM track and a meme was born: footage of the dancers was spliced with botched feats of strength and other accidents and posted all over the internet.
Now, the coronavirus pandemic has transformed their performance into a way to warn people of the dangers of ignoring social distancing.
In India, policemen dressed in uniform danced along to the track while carrying a (healthy) man on a stretcher. In Peru, police dressed in riot gear did the same, with a mock coffin.
The dance has even been used by protesters mourning the economy in Lebanon: in Beirut men dressed as the pallbearers marched a mock coffin decorated with the fast-depreciating Lebanese Lira down the street.
Fans can buy miniatures of the Nana Otafrija dancers from Hong Kong, or go to a Taiwanese bar where drinks are served by pallbearers. There’s also a video game-inspired version, where Mario dies and the pallbearers appear in pixellated form, moving in time to chiptune.
Benjamin Aidoo, the lead pallbearer, lists the Mario version among his favourites. His dancers have also taken it upon themselves to warn the public about the dangers of ignoring social distancing measures, with the help of a new slogan: “Stay at home or dance with us”.
Speaking from his home in Accra, Aidoo told the Guardian that he started working as a pallbearer while in high school in 2003. He came up with the idea of dancing with the coffin because he wanted people to be able to celebrate their dead. He also noticed that people would often grow so upset at their solemn funerals that they would faint or injure themselves. If they could focus on the dancing, he reasoned, they would be less likely to get hurt.
Once the pandemic is over, Aidoo hopes to teach people around the world to hold uplifting funerals.
“Most people love the display”, said Aidoo, “because they want to be happy.” When people’s parents die, for example, “You know what your mom and dad did for you,” said Aidoo. “Why should you cry?”
When you know the life that he or she spent before dying, I think it’s a great thing for you to celebrate.”
Things changed for Aidoo’s business when the family of a member of parliament who had died hired Aidoo and his fellow pallbearers – but insisted they wear all-white, matching outfits. The MP’s family paid for the outfits and the funeral celebration went so well that they tipped handsomely, too.
“That was the first time I ever saw a $100 bill,” said Aidoo.
After that, he said, “I had a vision for what I am doing.”
Aidoo now employs about 100 staff: 95 men and five women. Two of the women are lead pallbearers, like Aidoo: they march in front of the coffin with a cane – decorated with the Ghanaian flag – and top hat.
Aidoo has also recently hired a manager and together the pair are trying to build a global brand.
Asked how the coronavirus pandemic is affecting his business in Ghana, Aidoo explained that funerals are now restricted to 25 people – including pallbearers – and are sombre affairs. There’s no singing and dancing – so some people are keeping their loved ones’ bodies in the morgue until restrictions are lifted and they’re able to hold a large burial, with his dancers.
Once the pandemic is over his plans he hopes to travel and to open branches of his pallbearing business in other countries, where people will be able to hire Adioo-style coffin dancers.
He urged his fans to “Stay safe, stay alive, respect the rules and regulations given to them.”
“One day we will surely get there. This pandemic will be over and then we’ll all meet.”