Thanks to my son’s persistent day and night brainwashing with its catchy music, I have come to know the “coffin dance” meme that has gone viral over the internet lately. Featuring a group of African pallbearers dancing while carrying a casket, the video clip has been widely used to raise awareness for the Covid-19 pandemic and warn people to stay home.
Clueless as I was about this whole meme culture, I found myself typing in “coffin dance” on the search bar, whether it is out of parental control alert, or my fingers being controlled by the addictive rhythm already internalized in me, is not known. Nevertheless, the search yielded unexpectedly interesting result that kept me reading. Although the coffin dance itself is a rather new development in Ghana which found its international fame a few years ago, the seemingly incongruous jauntiness of the dance movement finds its root in the traditional Ghanaian belief that, like in many cultures, life transcends death. What intrigued me is the lavishness and liveliness of their funerals which, with their huge crowd, music and dance, could be easily mistaken as weddings or some celebratory occasions if not for the display of the coffins. Yet, this is not to say that the coffins in Ghana are anything close to prosaic and ordinary. If one can afford it, Ghana offers what is famously known as “fantasy coffins”, despite to be buried underground, the last resting places of the deceased are works of art in themselves, carving the symbols of one’s life with aesthetic design, refined details and unparalleled craftsmanship.
If funerals are the last piece of music in a concert, concluding the achievements and performance of the artists with lingering sorrow of separation, then the expressive and celebratory nature of the Ghanaian custom is the encore moment, building a special rapport with the audience with a personal touch and ending the night on a high note. From the vibrant music, coffin dance to bespoke fantasy coffins, Ghanaians find creative expression within traditional rituals, connecting with the deceased in a more profound and personal way, and proudly celebrating the lives well lived.
Religious belief aside, to me funeral rites were created out of the helplessness of knowing there is nothing more to be done when death calls upon us, and we try to make sense of our loss and channel the unspeakable sorrow through ceremony. However, this need of consolation and reassurance is becoming standardized in a way that there is little room for the intimate dialogues with both the deceased and our inner selves. I remember leaving the funeral of my grandmother with a kind of sinking hollowness which still weighs in me to this day. If this hollowness can ever be filled, it is the means for catharsis, the release of the deepest emotion through personal expression instead of cookie cutter ceremony.
From danse macabre to vanitas, death has been the motif of artistic expression throughout history, reminding people of the inevitable fact that we are all born astride the grave, but the universality of death does not make individual lives any less special. Perhaps Ghana could inspire more bereavement arts, adding individualistic colors to the final journey, giving the deceased a memorable send off while helping family and friends navigate their loss and find peaceful closure through creative expressions.