Season 1 of The Walking Dead reveals an interesting relationship with open-air cremation practices and burying bodies deserving of Archaeodeath comment.
Jim has a nightmare and begins obsessively digging graves. He has to be forcibly stopped by Shane. It seems Jim lays the group’s plans for burying the dead…
After the zombie attack on the group at night, Jim reveals that this attack was indeed his nightmare about what has now transpired.
The slain zombies are burned on the edge of camp upon a poorly constructed open-air pyre shown alight and being tended behind the characters. Corpses are seen half-burned hanging off its edge. T-Dog and Glen handle the burning. The rationale for this is not explicitly made clear, but presumably it is to disperse any potential contagion lingering in the cadavers. If this were the case, they were doing a poor job of it; evidence perhaps of their cluelessness in how to handle a zombie apocalypse, or ignorance by the producers regarding how to build a bonfire and/or pyre.
Yet, there is a twist, for while Glen participates in burning the zombies, he insists that those of the group killed by the zombies must be differentiated and buried, even though they were bitten and therefore ‘infected’. Their heads are impaled/smashed to ensure they don’t rise again, including Ed’s.
Glen seems to direct the group to populate the graves dug by Jim. Rick and Shane take up on Jim’s grave-digging work. All four (male adults) are the agents for inhuming the dead.
Later, we see the burial of the non-zombie dead in a grave-side ritual, although no details are portrayed of whether religious rituals are performed. Lori insists that the group need time to mourn.
The focus is upon the burial of one particularly special person. Following on from mourning and slaying as her sister Amy rose as one of the undead, Andrea, assisted by Dale, carries Amy’s body to the graveside. Amy’s cadaver is wrapped in a makeshift shroud. Performing her grief at her sister’s death, Andrea hauls Amy’s body down into the grave herself (rather than perhaps more sensibly dropping it in with the help of Dale or others who could have assisted).
If four males instigate inhumation, Lori and Andrea perform it.
To summarise – zombies are burned with casual disregard; the group’s slain are buried as the honoured dead.
Worldwide, burning bodies is not only a traditional way of disposing of the dead streching back tens of thousands of years as revealed in the archaeological record. It is also a modern disposal method, widely deployed in Western ‘developed’/’industrialised’ countries as well as widely in southern and SE Asia.
Intersecting with these practices, burning bodies of animals and sometimes people too is regarded as a rapid and hygienic way of destroying cadavers ridden by contagion during plagues and threatening to spread disease following natural disasters.
At one level, therefore, it is unsurprising that there is a desire to burn the slain zombies. The group doesn’t know how the zombie plaque is spread. Yet the opposite is not so straightforward. Why in the post-apocalyptic fictional world of the Walking Dead, is inhunmation revealed as the mode of dispoal imagined by 21st-century Americans for a simple but respectful funeral? Why is inhumation chosen for the honoured dead?
Others in the group share this question. Daryl doesn’t seem to get it at all and objects to the “Chinaman’s” insistence. Is this supposed to reveal Glen’s Korean ethnicity and aversion to cremation as a result? Trees are readily available, so open-air cremation is certainly practical: as practical as digging graves in hot weather conditions.
In a fantasy world where the dead are rising, it seems odd that the obsession with the animated cadaver is echoed in a persistent interest in burying the dead with corporeal integrity beyond assuring permanent brain damage has been inflicted to stop them rising.
The history and current practice of burning the dead in gas-fired ovens – ‘cremation’ – is a fascinating one. Since the 19th century, ‘modern’ cremation (as opposed to open-air cremation) has been a growing and widespread practice in most Western countries. However, in the US, it has remained a minority practice until fairly recently. In 1986/7, only 15% of dead Americans were cremated but rising dramatically to 45% by 2010 (the year Season 1 of TWD was first aired). The highest frequencies of Americans receiving cremation occur in the states of Nevada, Washington, Oregon, Hawaii and Maine it seems. Today, almost half of US citizens will now burn; a trend reflecting a significant rise only in the last two decades.
The US has seen a rise in cremation, but the frequency is dragging behind many other Western countries, notably Canada, the Netherlands, Sweden and the UK. Worldwide we might also cite higher cremation rates in Australia and New Zealand. Japan is the world’s most cremating nation, where over 99% of its citizens receive this method of disposal. With its vast population, China cremates more people than anywhere else, even India. In the context of Glen’s desire for burial, it is worth noting that cremation in South Korea is now at c. 85%: higher than the UK.
There might be many explanations here. The lack of coherent urban and suburban planning, a widely dispersed rural population, the relative availability of land (i.e. no shortage of space restricting inhumation), the complex social, ethnic and religious dimensions (including Orthodox and Catholic Christian, Muslim and Jewish traditions where cremation is either forebade or avoided) are among the reasons for the relatively slow take-up. The trend towards cremation reflects a secular society in which religious factors increasingly hold less sway on decisions regarding the disposal of the dead, but these other factors might be slowing the trend.
Yet sociologist Tony Walters, writing in 1993, put forward the argument that it is also because of America’s particular attitude to the sacredness of the body’s integrity, soil, nature and nationhood, in which the cemetery, the grave and the body, are nested foci for a cluster of cultural connotations and significances. This has many manifestations in practice and popular culture, including the embalming of the corpse, pristine management of American lawn cemeteries and the attention afforded to the repatriation of the war dead to be buried in American soil. So while cremation is on the rise in the US, there might be multiple reasons why cremation has more slowly acquired popularity and use in the US compared with many other Western countries. Indeed, this might help explain how inhumation is still the ideal.
The valorisation of inhumation and ambivalence towards cremation is revealed in the conservatisim of many American literary, artistic and filmic representations of death, including the genres of science fiction, fantasy and horror. What can these depictions tell us about attitudes towards cremation? It is therefore a legitimate area for academic commentary and critique for those interested in the history of dying, death and the dead in Western countries, including the US, to comment on how cremation is portrayed via such media. From an archaeological perspective, this includes not only attention to bodies and their transformation, but also to the material culture, burial practices/ash-scatterings, monuments and landscapes, as well as archaeological themes such as digging and curating bodies and body-parts. Hence, for archaeologists, these genre are fascinating evidence for a ‘contemporary archaeology of death’.
Hollywood and the media more generally lag behind the trend towards cremation. There are so many filmic portrayals of cemeteries and bodies, very few of cremation. Graveside scenes abound, from Marvel films to Scooby Doo, and cremation is still seen as odd, modern and ‘alien’.
So is the USA still struggling to comprehend cremation? Is this message clear in the stylised idealization of inhumation in Season 1 of The Walking Dead?
In dealing with the dead, ‘there are no rules’ asserts Laurie following the zombie attack. Yet she also insists that the group need time to mourn and bury their dead. ‘It’s what people do’. Inhumation is naturalised, and cremation is a curse inflicted on the zombified cadaver. Clearly there are rules, creating ones in the ‘back to basics’ post-apocalyptic world in which American can fantasise about its roots and ‘soul’ in the face of hopeless decline and death.
Season 1 of the Walking Dead is portraying a particular stylised American affinity to nature and bodily integrity in death in the post-apocalyptic world. Is the ‘traditional’ nature of inhumation regarded as some innate quality shared by different ethnic and religious groups following the zombie apocalpyse, as survivors struggle to handle loss and death on a massive scale? Is this why Jim’s visions and Glen’s Korean ethnicity are combined effective agents to voice the desire to differentiate between inhuming the group and burning ‘walkers’?
‘Burial’ is shown to be the ideal ‘American way’ of death: the right way to mourn. The distinction between burial and burning is a stark elemental and corporeal way of articulating the distinction between the collective soulless ‘them’ – zombie hordes who have lost humanity – and the ‘us’ of the group who are remembered as individuals with souls and personalities. Inhumation gives the dead an integrity, a place in nature, and a place from which never to rise in this world again. Inhumation is a route to Salvation. Meanwhile, cremation is oblivion.
In subsequent seasons, we see alternative views expressed. Yet in Season 1, cremation is a strategy of distinction.