The art and culture of mourning: Funeral ‘celebrations’ in the Global South

Pallbearers carry the casket of the late Ghanaian footballer, Christian Atsu Twasam, 31-year-old, during a funeral in in his hometown in Ada, Ghana. March 17, 2023. REUTERS/Francis Kokoroko
Source: X03672

One of the most viral memes of 2020 was the Ghanaian pallbearers, a group of men who perform choreographed dances while carrying coffins at funerals.

The dancers first gained popularity in 2015 when a YouTuber known as “Travelin Sister” posted footage of the group. They were later featured in a BBC News Africa report in 2017 that showed their unique service, which aims to celebrate the life of the deceased with joy and energy.

The song "Astronomia" by Vicetone and Tony Igy was added by users to various footage of humans or animals falling or failing, signifying their impending death. These footage were followed by the meme of the pallbearers and they went viral on social media sites like TikTok.

The Ghanaian pallbearers were the subject of a documentary series called "My Perfect Funeral: The Final Destination" that was produced by the African streaming site Showmax as a result of the meme's immense popularity. The show explores both the cultural and spiritual facets of funerals in Ghana as well as the struggles and lives of the pallbearers.

But why did this meme resonate with so many people around the world? What is the appeal of watching a bunch of individuals dance around with a coffin on their shoulders?

Despite being one of the oldest and most common human customs, funerals differ significantly between nations and eras. Funerals serve as an expression of the significance and worth of life and death in addition to being a means of burying the deceased.

Funerals serve as a means of guaranteeing the deceased's passage to the hereafter, whether it is oblivion, hell, heaven, or reincarnation. Funerals serve as a means of both honouring and remembering the deceased as well as helping those who are left behind deal with their grief and loss.

In parts of the Global South like Africa and Latin America, funerals are especially important and elaborate, as they reflect the diverse and rich cultures, beliefs, and values of the people who live there. Funerals are not only a way of honouring the dead, but also a way of expressing the connection between the living and the departed, as well as the community.

Elaborate funerals are a common way of honouring the dead and expressing the connection between the living and the departed in many communities.

Some families in China follow a custom known as Tian Ji, which translates to "sky burial." In this rite, the dead are left out in the open to carrion birds, letting nature take its course. It is viewed as a means of releasing the spirit from the body and reintroducing it to nature.

Buddhists from Tibet and Mongolia, who consider the body to be simply a temporary home for the soul, frequently engage in this practice. Additionally, some families want to cremate their loved ones and turn their ashes into vibrant beads that are kept as a memento or a house ornament.

Similar to this, people in Mexico and other areas of Latin America observe Día de los Muertos (The Day of the Dead), a celebration that blends remembering loved ones who have passed away with strengthening family and community ties.

This custom has its roots in pre-Hispanic times when the native people had the belief that once a year the souls of the dead visited their surviving kin. Families erect altars at the graves of the deceased, decorating them with food, flowers, candles, and images of the departed. Additionally, they enjoy music, dancing, and cuisine while donning masks and costumes.

It is impossible to overstate the burden on the families of the departed to make sure the funerals are lavish and live up to the standards of their communities. Funerals may be extraordinarily expensive and intricate occasions in some cultures, such as those in Ghana, Nigeria, China, and Mexico. They also involve a lot of planning and preparation.

The families of the deceased have to provide food, drinks, music, decorations, gifts, and other services for the guests who attend the funeral. The families also have to pay for the coffin, the burial site, the priest or clergyman, and other expenses related to the funeral. The families may also have to follow certain customs and rituals that are expected by their culture or religion.

For instance, some families in Ghana are known to hire professional mourners, who cry theatrically and loudly throughout the funeral. Some households in Nigeria are required to sacrifice cows or goats as a form of remembrance. Some Chinese households are required to burn cash or other objects as sacrifices to their ancestors. Some families in Mexico are required to erect altars filled with food, flowers, candles, and photos of the departed.

Africans produce textiles specifically for funerals as one of the ways they promote their funerals. Several African nations, including Ghana, Togo, Benin, Ivory Coast, Nigeria, and Mali, have patterns and fabrics specifically made for funerals. These fabrics typically come in the traditional colours of mourning, which are black or red, and have symbolic designs or motifs that stand for hope, grief, sorrow, or death. For the deceased or the mourners, these materials are used to create gowns, skirts, shirts, head wraps, scarves, or shrouds. When people wear them or utilize them at funerals, they can show their cultural identity and values.

Funerals are such a big deal in parts of the Global South because they reflect the diverse and rich cultures, beliefs, and values of the people who live there. Most importantly for these people, they serve as a coping mechanism to deal with grief and loss, as well as supporting and comforting each other. On such days, they gather, show support and solidarity, celebrate and mourn, share stories and memories, reaffirm their identity and values, and renew their bonds with each other and with their ancestors.

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