Say you’re watching a video of a person skiing. Suddenly, a beat rises on the soundtrack, the electronic whistling of Tony Ig’s 2010 club hit “Astronomia,” If you’re living in May 2020, you know what’s coming: a team of four to seven well-dressed men bouncing a casket on their shoulders. The viewer knows the skier is in the coffin.
“Dancing Pallbearers,” sometimes referred to as the “Coffin Dance,” has taken off in recent months. Part shitpost, part bait-and-switch prank and part dire warning, these rhythmic coffin carriers have held services all over the internet. Starting on TikTok, before making its way to YouTube, Twitter and beyond, the pallbearers have graced billboards and appeared on the BBC. In an age in which death is ever-present, this should come as no surprise. Dancing Pallbearers could’ve been just another run-of-the-mill bait-and-switch meme, but the coronavirus helped make it the biggest meme in the world.
The most popular variation of the meme (there are a few) comes from a short BBC documentary about the Nana Otafrija Pallbearing Services, a group of sharp-dressed dancers from Ghana make up the most popular variation of the meme. And it’s a good meme. At any other time, the “Dancing Pallbearers” would still be a success. The dance is fun, the song is catchy and the custom is totally foreign to most of the western world. Unless you’re living in New Orleans, funerals for many Americans are somber affairs. While this kind of celebration could appear disrespectful to some, in memes, it’s precisely the kind of juxtaposition that most memes thrive on.
Bait-and-switch memes are far from a new phenomenon. They’re among the first memes to cross over to the mainstream. Imagine an internet without the Rickroll, the ubiquitous bait-and-switch that still owns the space. The mid-2000s, when Rick first started rolling, were a boon time for the form. Websites like YTMND and Meatspin were hidden in links for friends to send to each other, while Goatse spread his iconic cheeks for unsuspecting link-clickers around the world. Bait-and-switch memes allowed anyone, no matter how web-savvy, to be a prankster supreme, and they could pull the same prank over and over. Considering the Rickroll never really went away, it must still be funny to someone.
The coronavirus made the perfect landscape for bait-and-switch memes. As information about the virus trickled in, government officials flooded social media and inboxes with instructions on how to stay safe. And many of them contained links. All one would have to do is keep the text and change the link. And that’s just what happened. In March, at the start of the outbreak, bait-and-switch memes were still nihilistic affairs. “Wood Sitting on a Bed,” the photograph of the late-adult film star Wardy Joubert III, became one of the biggest memes in the early days of the virus’ American outbreak. Memers began hiding the image behind links that promised coronavirus information. It was a perfect execution: bait someone with relevant information and pull old-fashioned picture-of-a-penis switcheroo.
The “Wood Sitting on a Bed” Meme petered out quickly. By April, “Wood Sitting on a Bed” felt like a million years ago, a relic from a time when the virus felt like a passing problem to most Americans. As the danger of corona sunk in, Wood’s popularity declined and in danced the pallbearers.
By mid-April, tensions online grew. The split between those sheltering in place and those protesters willing to risk their lives so they could buy lawn fertilizer grew. The internet became a battlefield to both share misinformation and condemn it. Disinformation campaigns, like the ones set up around the coronavirus, love memetic warfare. This time, however, memes became the perfect response. Responding to a post about how coronavirus was a hoax with images and videos of the pallbearers ended the conversation. Every aspect of the Dancing Pallbearers, a cornucopia of signs and icons, took on the same meaning: “Stay at home or dance with us.”
“Stay home or dance with us” became the message of the pallbearers. It’s a reaction to a viral clip of someone hurting themselves, but it isn’t until halfway through the clip that the viewer understands what’s going to happen. The video wasn’t just attached to a clip of an out of control Segway rider, memers began including the video to reports of people breaking quarantine and protesting safety precautions. As it became more evident that people would start using information that they heard in “Plandemic” or on InfoWars to set their life goals and try to drive policy in government, the Dancing Pallbearers became more of a warning than just shitposting. The pallbearers’ appearance in a video was a reminder that the FAIL, in this case, could be fatal.
Taken individually, the elements within Dancing Pallbearers carry the same meaning. The video’s soundtrack, the song “Astronomia,” means the same thing as the dance, as do the photographs of the dancers staring at the camera. Their looks instill the same message as the video as a whole. They’re the closest thing a shitpost can have to contain a real social meaning, which is “take this virus seriously.” The meme, along with their catchphrase, became reaction images to people responding to quarantine breakers. They appeared on a billboard in Brazil that warns “Stay at home or Dance with us,” while police in Columbia dressed up as the pallbearers, and danced with a coffin in the streets to “Astronomia” as a reminder to people about the stay at home orders. The Dancing Pallbearers meme has become synonymous with flattening the curve.
The actual dancers themselves don’t shy away from this messaging. In a recent followup with the BBC, Benjamin Aidoo, the leader of the Nana Otafrija Pallbearing Services and self-proclaimed creator of the Coffin Dance, told reporters that he would travel the world spreading the gospel of funeral dancing to other cultures after the pandemic subsided. Later, with his crew in white suits, faces covered with blue masks, he applauded healthcare workers for their services around the world. He had a stern warning to those who broke quarantine: “Stay at home or dance with us.”
From NANA OTAFRIJA to all the doctors in the world 🌍
Thank you 👏🏻
Mention 👇🏻 all the doctors out there with your country flag. #COVIDー19 #CoffinMeme #benjaminaidoo #nanaotafrija #CoffinDance #Doctors pic.twitter.com/OVrv5Ib8pz
— Benjamin Aidoo (@nanaotafrija) May 5, 2020