How do you commemorate a man eaten alive by walkers?
With no body left, a cenotaph is the answer. What form? Simple, stone, sorted!
In Season 1 of the Walking Dead, we learn how funerals are still an integral part of the post-apocalyptic world, and that Rick’s group decide to burn walkers, but bury those they loved. In Season 2 we find out how the dead are mourned when there is no body left to dispose of.
At the beginning of Season 2 of the Walking Dead, Rick and his group lose Carol’s daughter, Sophia, when a herd of walkers pass them by on the highway. In the ensuing search, Rick’s son Carl gets accidentally shot by a man called Otis (played by the awesome Pruitt Taylor Vince, who will always be Clifford Banks to my mind) who was out hunting a deer. Hence the group find themselves taken by Otis to Hershel Greene’s family farm.
Hershel (Scott Wilson) operates on Carl to save his life, but they need of medical supplies. To this end, Shane (John Bernthal) and Otis attempt to raid a FEMA centre set up at the nearby high school. On the way out, chased by walkers, Shane decides to kill Otis to ensure his escape.
Back at the farm, the group mourn Otis by building a chest-high (c. 1.20m) cairn to his memory. Located under the shade of a tree some distance from the house, beside the fields, the situation is isolated, perhaps on the edge of the property. As such, this might be seen as an apposite location for a ‘bad death’, albeit someone still loved and respected by many of those present. The group stand in a semi-circle, each of the group adding a stone from a wheel barrow while Hershel leads a remembrance service.
Clearly the cairn constitutes two monuments in one: a pile of larger stones collected by a smaller number of those present, capped by a second set of stones that symbolically denote everyone’s contribution to the cenotaph.
Otis’s widow Patricia (Jane McNeill) pleads to Shane to speak of her husbands final moments, and Shane lies and honours Otis himself, claiming his death was selfless. He adds the final stone to the cairn.
Some would see all acts of memorialisation as something of a deceit; selecting out the positive features of the deceased’s character and forgetting the bad or mediocre. The fact that Otis shot Carl is glossed over, and his ‘sacrifice’ honoured for helping retrieve the medical supplies that save Carl’s life. Yet Shane’s concealment of his part in the death of Otis, if hidden in his lies, are made tangible and sinister by his participation in laying the last stone on the cairn. The stone materialises his mourning, yet bears his guilt too.
For cremation or inhumation, we see no similar lithic memorial practices, so the creation of a cairn is portrayed as something distinctive for the absent dead; a feature that chimes with widespread roadside memorial practices honouring untimely and tragic deaths found across Europe and North America.