In the wake of the Black Death, the Danse Macabre became a popular genre in Europe during the Late Middle Ages. Countless artists depicted a personified Death, taking on all manner of guises, either lurking nearby or claiming the souls of people from every walk of life. It’s estimated that the Plague killed anywhere from a third to two-thirds of Europe’s population; after such a cataclysm, it was only natural that the cultural mood reflected this, and the Danse Macabre genre persisted for centuries. But such works were not necessarily dour. German printmaker Hans Holbein the Younger created a famous series of satirical woodcuts on the subject in the early 15th century. For all the modern talk of “irony poisoning,” there have always been those who responded to the darkness of life around them with grim humor.
Anyway, on the morning of the day that I am writing this, a friend posted “feeling sick” in a Twitter group DM, followed by a picture of some Ghanaian pallbearers dancing with a casket. Because that’s how we communicate now.
Nana Otafrija Pallbearing & Waiting Services, originally operating in the town of Prampram in Ghana, has been in business for over ten years, and had received some measure of internet fame even before its pallbearers became a meme. Several videos of the group’s impeccably dressed and delightfully talented performers had previously racked up millions of views on YouTube. Defying most preconceptions of mourning, they turn funerals and burials into upbeat affairs, dancing complex choreography with the deceased’s coffin on their shoulders. Founder Benjamin Aidoo told AP in 2017 how he wanted to “add colour” to the process. Imitators and competitors have since sprung up around Ghana. (It should be noted that this is not a traditional part of local culture or ritual, but a new development.)
Then, earlier this year, footage of the pallbearers started to become a punchline in fail videos (clips of people trying to pull something off and, well, failing). Know Your Meme’s helpful forensic tracing of the Dancing Pallbearers’ spread found this to be the earliest known example:
From there, as memes are wont to do, it evolved. (It’s unknown how the EDM song “Astronomia” by Vicetone & Tony Igy became inextricably linked with the dancers.)
And it was only a matter of time before the format came to be applied to the worldwide anxiety around the COVID-19 pandemic:
We’ve been told to maintain a strict regimen of behaviors to avoid getting or spreading the virus. One consequence is that we can now fear any misstep in this process. “I forgot my face mask when I went to get my mail! Will I die now?” Videos like the one above illustrate this anxiety aptly, but representing death as the Nana Otafrija pallbearers, a troupe of well-dressed men dancing terrifically to upbeat music, adds a layer of fun absurdity. The group has embraced its newfound exposure, with Aidoo approving of their use as a warning against breaking quarantine. The pallbearers even danced while wearing face masks in a recent television appearance to drive the point home.
To come full circle, the meme now sees examples of the pallbearers’ presence warning people away from foolishness unrelated to the pandemic. Where initially they showed up after various “fails,” carting victims to their final reward, now we see them appear as phantoms, eager to claim the unwary. They have become social media’s newest contribution to the canon of psychopomps, the beings from various mythologies who shepherd souls into the afterlife.
And if you need further proof that this meme is nothing more than an update on a trope as old as the Middle Ages, well … (Do yourself a favor and make sure you turn the sound on.)
So stay safe, everyone! Practice good social distancing and hygiene, lest the pallbearers of Nana Otafrija claim you next! But of course, none of us can avoid Death forever. Sooner or later, it will dance with all of us in our coffins to spiffy EDM.