arlier this year, just as the world was gearing up for one of the most chaotic and tumultuous periods in recent history, a viral video highlighting dancing pallbearers from the Republic of Ghana in West Africa emerged online, rapidly becoming one of the most widely circulated memes of the entire year. Known as the “Coffin Dance” or “Dancing Pallbearers” meme, this reaction clip spread across the world in the following months alongside the coronavirus pandemic, and no meme seemed more apt to help the world cope with their situation.
While the internet rapidly adopted the format into countless types of memes on nearly every social media platform, Benjamin Aidoo, CEO of the Nana Otafrija Pallbearing & Waiting Services in Accra, Ghana, began to take notice of his company becoming an online sensation.
“I first saw it on social media, especially TikTok,” Aidoo said in an interview with Know Your Meme conducted over Zoom. “I was asking them, ‘Who did that?’ But nobody knew. A friend of mine sent it to me and told me there are so many in every country, especially Lebanon, Brazil, Argentina. They were the first people to start calling me and wanting me to do an interview and stuff.”
(Benjamin Aidoo and members of the Nana Otafrija Pallbearing & Waiting Services in Ghana.)
Within a short period of time, Aidoo was inundated with requests for interviews around the world as people attempted to learn more about the story. After taking on a manager to help handle the massive influx of global interest, Aidoo found himself conducting an average of five interviews a day, and his social media accounts began rapidly growing as fans discovered the man behind the meme.
Despite the recent fame, Aidoo’s business has humble origins that date all the way back to 2007. Originally started as a side gig to help put himself through school, Aidoo said he got the idea for such a business after observing the downhearted nature of funerals in his country. From its start, Nana Otafrija’s mission was to celebrate life and spread joy in a unique and uplifting way.
“I hate to see people cry. I feel upset and bad when I see people crying,” he said. Rather than mourning the dead in a sorrowful manner, Aidoo wanted people to be able to celebrate life, be happy, share that experience and move on with their lives.
(Nana Otafrija members at a funeral service in Ghana, circa 2012.)
Though not originally part of his concept, Aidoo introduced the dancing element of his pallbearing services later on as a way to spark joy and celebrate the life of the deceased in a more lighthearted manner. “So I decided to add the display to it [dancing with the coffin], and people stopped crying. They started laughing and cheering up. It’s a way of saying goodbye to the deceased.”
When first introduced to his local community, Aidoo said that most people understood the concept of his untraditional take on funeral services, but it wasn’t without a few skeptics. To win them over, the dancing pallbearers began performing at the services of friends and family, while Aidoo continued to share his perspective on celebrating life.
It didn’t take long for his business to become a success, and after winning over the hearts of his community, Aidoo’s uplifting perspective on such a gloomy tradition began attracting international attention for the first time. In 2017, BBC News was the first major media outlet to cover Nana Otafrija’s services when they visited Ghana, recorded the dances and interviewed Aidoo and his team. Al Jazeera reported on the story shortly after, giving Aidoo hope that this newfound interest would propel the dreams for expanding his business across the globe.
Until 2020, Aidoo and his company remained largely unknown to most of the world. But just as the coronavirus pandemic was wreaking havoc everywhere, the 2017 clips resurfaced and transformed into a wildly successful remix meme, offering viewers a respite from the depressing and stressful events taking place. Just like Aidoo’s mission to turn melancholy into happiness at funerals, the Coffin Dance served as an uplifting distraction to take people’s minds off the gloom and doom.
“This pandemic took people by surprise. My video was motivating and encouraging them to move on with life, and I’m very happy that it is impacting happiness at the same time,” he said. “Immediately when people look at the video, they feel happy.”
Since the meme became a phenomenon, Aidoo said that he frequently gets calls or messages from fans around the world. Most of these are from people who just want to say hello, but Aidoo always manages to find time to speak with them and continue spreading his message. “Sometimes I sit down and analyze [everything] like, ‘Wow, I have really impacted good things into people’s lives.’”
When many think of the Coffin Dance, their iconic slogan, “stay at home or dance with us,” also comes to mind. The intertwining of this meme and the COVID-19 outbreak is something Aidoo also felt was an important part of his mission. Upon seeing his video spread to people across the globe, Aidoo wanted viewers to take notice of the severity of the pandemic, so he used his newfound platform to encourage the world to listen to their health organizations, stay home, wear their masks and fight the coronavirus together.
“Our video is being used to scare people and make them take precautionary measures -- to make sure they know that when they misbehave, we are there, and we’re gonna dance with them,” he said. “And at the same time, our video is making people stay indoors and be happy.”
From NANA OTAFRIJA to all the doctors in the world 🌍— Benjamin Aidoo (@nanaotafrija) May 5, 2020
Thank you 👏🏻
Mention 👇🏻 all the doctors out there with your country flag. #COVIDー19 #CoffinMeme #benjaminaidoo #nanaotafrija #CoffinDance #Doctors pic.twitter.com/OVrv5Ib8pz
The effects of the pandemic have also been heavily felt by Ghana, including Aidoo’s business, which can only operate in a minimal capacity due to government restrictions on burials. Despite this, Aidoo said the attention surrounding the meme has tremendously helped his company get through the tough times. Since the video went viral, businesses from all over have begun collaborating with Aidoo on merchandise, music videos, films and more. Rather than taking the opportunity to help himself, however, Aidoo plans to donate some of his good luck to those in need, while continually expanding his operations so he can grow his company and create employment opportunities. Over the next decade or so, Aidoo hopes to start an academy to train others and offer his unique funeral services in countries around the world. Currently, Nana Otafrija employs about 100 individuals, and being able to give back to those impacted by the pandemic, which has caused unemployment rates to skyrocket everywhere, is something he holds dear.
When asked about the meme itself and what he makes of it, Aidoo expressed his love, appreciation and openness for allowing everyone to use it as they see fit. “I give thanks to everybody who is happy with my video or have embraced my video and made something out of it, I am happy and grateful.” At the same time, he also hopes it serves as a future reminder to encourage people to think twice before making risky decisions in their lives. “When they see us, people are going to be careful. They’ll say, ‘Hey, let me stand [still], let me stop speeding, let me stop drinking, let me stop doing what I’m doing because I’m going to get hurt, and I’m going to dance with them.’”
Aidoo’s personal favorite versions of the meme are those that recreate the scene and dance in new, original ways. His top picks include one with Mario and another that shows a group of guys dancing with a grill after a pig leaps from a truck. “Each and every day, people are posting and sending videos to me to repost because I don't do these memes myself. People create it and then send it to me, and I'm happy.”
In May, a version of the Coffin Dance was even used by President Donald Trump’s campaign in a video shared to social media. When asked about this, Aidoo said he felt like he was on the moon and couldn’t believe it.
“My manager sent it to me around 9 p.m. and I was sleeping. [He called me] and said, ‘Hey man, do you know who just used your video?!’ I said no, and he kept saying, ‘Guess, guess!’ I said I didn’t know, maybe my president or my mother, so he just told me it was Trump. I said wow and went to look at it. I was very, very happy and amazed because for him, that people respect and at the same time fear, to be using my video, honestly, I was very happy.”
In the years ahead, Aidoo wants to use all of this sudden internet fame to expand Nana Otafrija’s services to every country of the world, hoping to spread his message of positivity, celebration of life and work hand in hand with the global community to recover from the effects of the pandemic. As for the legacy of the meme itself? Aidoo thinks that when anyone in the future looks back on 2020, the Coffin Dance will serve as something we can all look back on, joke about and remember as one of the few glimmers of light in such a dark time.