Archaeologists always wonder what motivated past communities to burn their loved ones (i.e. some form of open-air cremation) while others buried dead bodies unburned. Many past communities chose to deploy both cremation and inhumation together and in varying frequencies. Such instances are particularly intriguing. When both burned and unburned disposal options were available and enacted, what practical, technological or other factors might lead the survivors to burn or bury? Was it faith, cult, social standing, family tradition, affinity to place or even political statement? Were environmental factors and weather conditions a factor, or simply the season? Or was it to do with the social identity of the deceased, or the circumstances of their death? This is the topic of my next edited book, so why not invest in that modestly priced little tome…
The superbly popular and long-running AMC series The Walking Dead gives us a stark post-apocalyptic fictional perspective on how small itinerant groups of families and individuals of disparate ethnicities and religious dispositions, age and genders, might chose how to dispose of the dead.
In Season 1 we see Rick Grimes and his group making the stark decision to burn the infected and yet to distinguish those they loved/knew by burying them. It isn’t just the different modes of treating the cadaver, but the use of the graveside as a venue for a communal memorial services, as discussed here.
Let’s be clear: burning the corpses of zombies might be seen as a means of fighting secondary diseases (or indeed the spread of the zombie virus itself, about which even the screenwriters don’t seem to know the cause!). However, distinguishing those who were regarded as individual, even if infected, reveals how the process of disposing of the dead was a strategy of distinction. The work of digging graves, lowering in corpses, backfilling graves and conducting even simple graveside ceremonies, and thus transporting and spatially distinguishing individuals in death from the seemingly gruesome, poorly composed communal pyres, are a mesh of strategies for mourning and remembrance. These are seen as more than ‘tradition’, but as active gestures by those beleaguered at the apocalypse to define their humanity in the face of incomprehensible horrors as opposed to the utiliarian corpse disposal of burning bodies in piles or leaving them discarded where they fall.
Season 2 of TWD sees us return to this theme. Glen discovers that those walkers who had wandered onto the farm, and loved ones who had turned, are being kept by Hershel locked in the barn and fed chickens. When Shane loses patience, breaks open the barn, the group must slay those within. Not only because those in the barn include Hershel’s family, but also because Sophia is found among them, their killing is a particularly traumatic and divisive moment. Furthermore, Hershel must confront his delusion that the walkers in his barn had still been alive, just sick. He has to see his family members slain simultaneous while realising his folly.
An abrupt discussion proceeds in which the spatial and disposal methods of the slain walkers is decided upon. T-Dog asks the practical question: do we start burying? Andrea states that there should be a service. Lori directs the burial to take place for those who were known: so graves are dug for the bodies of Sophia, Annette and Sean. As Andrea says: ‘we bury the ones we love, and burn the rest’.
The burial location is chosen for practicality and proximity it seems: downhill and close to the barn where they had been housed. As such, the location is in front of the house and might be seen as affective and social.
The burials are simple and in a row, beneath trees. The place of burial is therefore a simple, farmyard aesthetics. We see the group involved in grave-digging. We see the graves having a second phase of use when a fourth body is added to the existing three. This becomes the burial place of Dale after he is attacked by a walker and his stomach ripped open. Therefore we see the graves as uniform, but representing two phases of deaths of both ‘loved walkers’ and newly dead group-members, framed by stones and with flowers at the head ends (presumably west if indeed they are aligned west-east following Christian tradition).
The burning is inept and crude, with bodies carted by truck to the other side of the house. A moment of dark humour occurs whilst dumping of the bodies in the back of the truck when an arm falls out. Andrea helps in loading and unloading of the corpses but only two male individuals – Shane and T-Dog (the latter ensuring continuity in this task from Season 1) are involved in the pyre-building and burning.
They hardly stack the wood in a coherent fashion and use petrol as accelerant. They are torched out of sight of the others. While there is no formal ritual, they do both light torches and make their mutual contribution to the disposal, which might in itself be regarded as a moment of respect for the dead.
In a later episode, we see Dale pass by the partially burned pile of corpses at night. This confirms the makeshift character of the cremation and the complete lack of attention to post-cremation treatment of the ashes. It also means that the farm has two disposal zones – one honoured and inhumation to the front of the property, one dishonoured and involving mass cremation to the rear. Yet both have prominent places in the narrative of Season 2, configuring the space of the farm that is the temporary home for the group as they struggle to survive.
Therefore, even if prosaic and lacking spiritual content, burning the dead was situational and significant for the group: defining us from them. As previously noted, the mortuary opposition between ‘us’ (the group) and ‘them’ (walkers) was about to change as other groups of the living come into the story… We also see gender differences at work: women orchestrate, and men do the labour when disposing of the dead in The Walking Dead.