Georgia cop Rick Grimes wakes up recovering from his gunshot wound to find the hospital abandoned. There’s a half-eaten corpse on the corridor floor. Chained double doors strain from the pressure of groaning, clawing bodies. They are daubed with the terrifying warning message: ‘DON’T OPEN DEAD INSIDE’. Struggling outside, he finds corpses stacked in their hundreds and the vestiges of a 7th cavalry unit slaughtered by the undead.
The zombie apocalypse has happened, and civilization as just gone south. Season 1 of The Walking Dead (TWD) finds a world where society has collapsed, ‘walkers’ roam eating the living, and those bit ‘turn’ too. Only brain damage can stop the dead in their tracks.
American gun culture ensures that there are plenty of weapons and ammo around for the living to defend themselves against the walkers. However, guns are noisy and the walkers are attracted by sound, so blunt and bladed weapons, including baseball bats, crossbows, axes and machetes, as well as all manner of improvised implements, are deployed to battle for survival. Increasingly, these weapons will get used for the living to fight each other…
With the dead walking the earth, unsurprisingly, traditional funeral obsequies and body disposal are the lowest priority. The bodies of the living and ‘walkers’ are abandoned as a matter of course. Rather than religion, ethnicity, material wealth and social position or social identity determining mode, manner and place of disposal, we enter a world stripped to the fundamentals of survival.
I say ‘basics’, but there are plenty of arseholes around sponging off others, still racial conflicts between blacks, whites and latinos. The women seem to end up doing all the domestic work, the men posture for power, relative wealth, women and ego. Oh yes, and most of the kids are still just as bloody annoying (apart from Carl, he’s cool… in time).
In the treatment of the dead, ‘the basics’ is stark. There is only one distinction at first: between ‘us’ (the living’) and them (‘the undead’). In subsequent seasons, the distinction shifts to a quartet of distinctions – the living and ‘the dead’ being cross-cut by the distinction of ‘ours’ and ‘others’, as the members of other groups are killed or ‘turn’.
In this fabulously popular and long-running series charting the zombie apocalypse, what can we learn as mortuary archaeologists about the portrayal of the treatment of the dead? Is there a mortuary archaeology of The Walking Dead? Previously, I suggested ‘no’, and instead I discussed my enthusiasm for TWD material culture and also I characterised ‘zombie heritage‘ in our real-world landscapes. Now, I have some suggestions about the series itself and how material culture and mortuary practice are depicted, and how choices are made, and mediations with the cadaver take centre stage.
Let’s start our journey at the very beginning, Season 1, but in future posts, I’ll address subsequent seasons. So buckle up, and let the zombie archaeology commence.
Mercy Killings – Leon, Bicycle Girl and Jenny
This is the first kind of treatment for the dead we encounter in Episode 1: the mercy killing of those who have turned and for whom Rick determines need putting to rest ‘with respect’. This shows what archaeologists often say: ‘respect’ is a relative and contextual thing. This includes those who are distinctive zombies, notably ‘bicycle girl’. She is the first zombie Rick encounters as he struggles out of the hospital. She’s in a real state. She has lost her lower parts and crawls along with her arms. Before he leaves for Atlanta, he returns where ‘bicycle girl’ had been and tracks her through the beautiful park before ending her life in a tranquil arboreal setting. For Rick, encountering zombies for the first time, mercy killings constitute a crude form of funeral as he pities them and their vestiges of humanity.
Likewise, after being saved by Morgan and his son, Rick encounters someone he knows – a cop called Leon Basset. Rick decides to risk the noise of a gunshot to end his walker existence. He may not have liked him, he does not bury him, but he determines that Leon needs a shot to the head as a mark of respect. Death by cop, for cop.
The third example from Episode 1 is an aborted mercy killing, and one that shows how love, pity and mercy shown by the living towards the dead as they struggle to believe the animated dead do not still harbour a vestige of the deceased person’s humanity. Morgan cannot kill his own zombie-wife, Jenny. We learn the consequences of his hesitation in later Seasons… Indeed, later Seasons play again and again of the fatal consequences of imagined the walking dead might still be saved. Yet again and again we see small acts of mercy and personal anger exhibited in equal measure towards the undead hordes.
Organ Donor: Remembering the one and only Wayne Dunlap
We get to episode 2 and Rick has joined a group scavenging in Atlanta. To get out of their building, Rick’s plan is to pull apart slain zombies and daub themselves in their blood and viscera to conceal their smell from the astute multisensory walking dead.
Before doing so, Rick hesitates, still unable to regard them as inpersonal monsters. He checks the zombie’s personal effects, and finds out his name is Wayne Dunlap, with a picture of a pretty girl in his wallet, with ‘with love from Rachel’ written on the back. He vows to tell his family about Wayne, as if his maltreatment of the corpse needs justification and a ’cause’ to contextualise it. Then, Glen points out ‘one more thing’: he was an organ donor, as if that someone permits their brutal treatment of the corpse. They then proceed to carve up his cadaver….
This is one of the Walking Dead’s best dark humour moments, playing on the idea that organs of the dead can be put to good effect by the living. Yet it also reveals how the living struggle to be remembered, even as zombies: a theme that comes back even darker in Seasons 2 and 3…
Amy and the Mermaid Pendant
We come far closer to emotive, personal funerary rituals with the death of Amy. She is the younger sister of Andrea, and when the zombies attack camp she receives multiple bites and dies in the night. Andrea defends her body and refuses the others access to stop her turning. She stays with her, mourning until morning. Here material culture plays a pivotal role in mourning her loss and materialising her grief, regret and love for her sister. This is a mermaid pendant which she placed around the dead Amy’s neck. Andrea had ‘looted’ it in Atlanta especially for Amy given her love for mermaids. This is made especially poignant as it was a birthday gift for Amy and this was indeed her birthday.
The disturbing equivalence of zombie reanimation to resurrection is played upon, and viewers are left waiting to see whether Andrea can really bring herself to violently ‘kill’ her infected sister before or when she reanimates. Andrea continues to hold her sister and touch her with tenderness as Amy turns and rises up trying to bite her. She holds her tightly and speaks to the young woman, expressing regret for missing her birthdays in the past: ‘Amy, I’m sorry for not ever being there, I always thought they’d be more time. But I’m here now Amy, I love you’. Andrea then shots her with a gun she’d never had the ability to use before.
Andrea shows that even in the ‘basic’ world of the zombie apocalypse, the living have choices about how they say goodbye to those they love and how material culture can play a central part in this. I’ll come back to Amy’s death in a further post when we discuss her burial.
Beating the Wife-Beater: Carol’s fond farewell to her husband Ed Peletier
In stark contrast to the touching and tragic death of Amy, in which Andrea says her goodbye, beaten wife Carol says farewell to her arsehole husband who we’ve seen beating her and treating everyone, but especially Andrea and Carol, with contempt. It is far from tragic that a new women comes into his life and stops by for a bite.
As the group make their rounds through the dead of the night’s battle, Carol opts to personally insure Ed doesn’t reanimate. A single pickaxe to the skull should do the trick, but traumatised Carol’s 5 strikes mix together her emotions of fear and hate, love and sorrow, anger and relief, that Ed is no longer either alive or undead to harm her and her daughter.
Opting Out: Jim, Jacqui and Jenner
One of the group, Jim, is bitten and Jacqui discoveries his bite. He gets fevered and hallucinates, but convinces the group that he himself has chosen to die. He says ‘just leave me, I want to be with your family’.
The ethics of this scene are interesting, as Shane and Rick agonise over the problem of what to do. Lori intercedes to assert that his manner of death is his choice and it isn’t ‘their call’. So they agree to let him die his own way. He is carried out of the vehicle and placed beneath a tree beside the roadside. He refuses a gun, so is destined to ‘turn’, leaving open the ethical problem faced of what happens if you leave the living to turn, that decision could come back to bite you, or someone. They say goodbye to each of the adults, as friends and family might at a hospital bedside, allowing him to concede to his fate. The right to zombify is respected and they drive away for him towards the CDC.
Reaching the CDC, they find a single doctor left – Dr Edwin Jenner. He stays in the CDC as it self-destructs. Having lost his wife and failed to find a cure to the zombie virus, he chooses to die. Moreover, one of the group, Jacqui, about whom we learn precious little, decides she’s had enough and uses the impending explosion as her ‘opt out’ of the horror of the post-apocalyptic world.
So it is key to note that Jim and Jenner are both giving up for good, practical reasons, but also because they have lost loved ones and their suicide is portrayed as part of their mourning process.
Similarly, Andrea has lost her sister and so initially also choses to stay and die. However, Dale forces her to leave by threatening to die with her. They escape together at the last minute. They drive off into the sunset for more fun and games in Season 2…
This post has sketched the mortuary behaviour within 2 months of the zombie apocalypse in The Walking Dead, Season 1. Rather than the gore-fest it first appears, Season 1 dealts with a diverse range of ways people deal with mourning and loss in everyday life, albeit condensed and exagerated for the fictional context of the zombie apocalypse.
Zombie fiction is all about debating what it is to be alive and be human. Society may have collapsed and corpses are discarded where they expire or are slain, but personal mourning and personal gestures of mercy and respect towards the (un)dead extend from the treatment of the ‘walking dead’ to those who have been bitten. Ethical issues regarding whether the undead are ‘people’ merge with respect for who they once were, and the choice of the living to opt for their own fate by suicide including death by zombie.
As we have seen, material culture is central to these interactions between the living, the dying, the dead and the undead. Far from discarded, the place of death and the treatment of the corpse is more than prosaic and uncaring. The treatment of the dying, the dead and the undead, becomes more, not less, central to being alive and being a social person. In a fictional world focused on the uncanny reanimation of cadavers, the humanity of bodies dead and undead is exhibited through many choices, materialities and practices.
Most touchingly for Andrea, Amy and the mermaid pendant, we encounter a fictional glimpse of modern America, where personal, portable material culture mediates mourning and memory.
Personal character rather than status or power matter far more after the zombie apocalypse. As much as pity and respect, ‘love’ and ‘hate’ are axes for mourning. Hence, in contrast to Amy, for Ed, his manner of demise by two women – one undead and then one living – is portrayed as fitting his violent character.
In a subsequent post, we’ll turn to the disposal of the dead by burial and cremation in Season 1…