TikTok has ushered in the world's freshest stars, from Lil Nas X to Charli D'Melio but it also tends to make what is old new again. Though, no one could have predicted that the app would bring back a video from 2017 of six Ghanian pallbearers dancing. It seems macabre in theory, to reinvigorate a clip from a funeral during a global pandemic. Still, by pairing it with a 10-year-old EDM track, Astronomia by Russian producer Tony Igy, it's created a twisted meme that has captivated the internet.
First featured in a BBC documentary in 2017, today The Nana Otafrija pallbearers are led by Benjamin Aidoo, who started the group as a regular pallbearer service. They were first featured on TikTok in February 2020, after user @lawyer_ggmu shared a video of a skier falling on the slopes before cutting to a clip of The Nana Otafrija pallbearers dancing. The post has received more than 501,000 likes and 4,000 comments and effectively started the dancing pallbearers meme format.
Today, the video follows a format that is best described as a dark twist on Australia's Funniest Home Videos. Videos of mishaps, falls, and accidents are proceeded by a clip of the dancing pallbearers, which is then soundtracked by the frenzied sound of Astronomia.
However, the original meme has spawned a number of iterations, the most bizarre being from police departments around the world using the joke as a way of warning others against violating stay at home orders and social distancing mandates.
One video from a police department from Cuddalore, a small town in India shows a man being danced into a stretcher by four policeman donning colourful surgical masks. While in Peru, police dressed in riot gear created a similar video, this time with a fake coffin. Some TikTokers have used the format to joke about their symptoms and their mortality.
So what's the story behind the dancing pallbearers? “I decided to add choreography to it so if the client comes to us we just ask them: ‘Do you want it solemn, or do you want a bit of a display? Or maybe you want some choreography on it?’ They just ask and we do it," Aidoo told the BBC. Extra fees are charged for dancing with the coffin.
Today, Aidoo employs about 100 staff of which 95 are men and five are women. Two of the women are lead pallbearers and alongside Aidoo they march in front of the coffin with a cane, adorned with the Ghanaian flag and a top hat.
Aidoo is acutely aware of the jokes associated with his video. A public acknowledgement of this came with a video on Twitter, where he and his dancers share their own dark humour: “Stay at home or dance with us.” The crew also take a moment to thank healthcare workers. “Thanks to all the doctors in the world,” reads the text in the video. “You are working hard, taking care of everyone.
As for how he's dealing with the fame, Aidoo says its “a bit scary, but it’s funny, too,” he told The Washington Post. “People are saying, ‘I’d rather stay home than have these guys bury me.’ ”
While these pallbearers have wound up becoming the grim reapers of TikTok, Tony Igy has become the next Darude.
Finnish DJ and record producer, Darude became a meme himself with his 1999 song, Sandstorm. In the early 2000s, the ubiquitous techno hit wound up in multiple viral videos including in one of a man playing the song on the trumpet. Much like Sandstorm, Igy's Astronomia is cartoonishly charming, with a memable hook that has spawned over 500,000 videos on TikTok alone. The 2014 Vicetone remix of Astronomia has also subsequently scored the producers their first Billboard hit.
Igy first found out his old song was going viral when people started to contact him in droves. “I found out in March, as African teens started to write me in DM that my track is very popular in their country,” he told Variety. “We were happy to see it going viral after all these years,” adds Ruben Den Boer from Vicetone. “We’ve been playing it out for six years now, and we were definitely surprised too because nobody would ever expect this, and you can’t prepare for it either… it just happens, and we count our lucky stars for it.”
And when this pandemic ends, Aidoo hopes to teach everyone how to hold joyful funerals.
“Most people love the display,” he says, “because they want to be happy...When you know the life that he or she spent before dying, I think it’s a great thing for you to celebrate. Why should you cry?”