ep-7-liarI want to post a reflection on the unquestionably deliberate and disrespectful treatment of cadavers, as portrayed in Season 4 of The Walking Dead, where we not only see an incipient post-apocalyptic cemetery culture and cremation deployed to dispose of ‘walkers’, but in addition the characters chance upon the inhuman post-mortem display and humiliation of cadavers and body-parts. Corporeal evidence of the breakdown of social norms, conflict and violence, these instances hint at the many untold horror stories whose material vestiges are encountered by the characters during their travels.

ep-7-rapistIn Episode 7 (‘Dead Weight’), Martinez, the Governor (‘Brian’) and their group encounter a homestead in which three men’s bodies are found: two beheaded, one who shot himself. Each has a rectangular handwritten cardboard label nailed (yes, with a nail) to their chests with an adjective, presumably describing their chief characteristic according to the killer. The first body is tied at the foot of a tree and bears the label ‘Liar’. The second is tied to an easy-chair in a field with the label ‘Rapist’. The third man, by the entrance to the house, has shot himself and is labelled ‘Murderer’.

We never get to know what precisely occurred but, in addition to their bodies being displayed, the heads of the first two men were curated and kept inside a closet in the house. Here, female walkers were also encountered, perhaps the killers who wreaked revenge on their abusers and then took their own lives or died of other causes.

‘Brian’s’ group emphasise how it is best not to speculate too closely on what happened. In this instance, the group do not care about how others died, or about the humiliated of their bodies – they are just more corpses and their position, posture and disrespectful display in death is no concern of theirs. The bodies are left as they were found: Martinez and the others instead sit around drinking beer. They do not try to ‘think too much’ about what went down, and don’t think at all about the proper treatment of the dead.

This reveals to us something about those that encounter the displayed remains. Despite containing well-meaning individuals as well as psychos, Martinez, Brian and the others have no aspiration to recover social norms or respect humans in life or death. They may live in a ‘community’, but they are lost to society.

ep-7-murdererIn contrast, in Episode 12, Beth and Daryl search a golf club for booze and find golfers who committed suicide and remain suspended as the undead. They also come across golfer zombies aplenty.

Eventually, they discover evidence of post-mortem manipulation and the humiliating display of a corpse. It is unclear whether this was following murder of a living person or the treatment of a ‘walker’. Again, we are left to speculate regarding the fate of those on the golf house and how they ‘turned’. What murders and other desperate acts occurred as they starved and fought at the apocalypse?

Shockingly, for reasons unknown, the upper half of a female body has been fixed to the lower half of a mannequin, with a piece of paper nailed to her saying ‘Rich Bitch’. Her shirt is open so her bra is revealed. She wears a pearl necklace and earrings, denoting to audiences her wealth in life.

Beth notices and immediately goes to intervene by attempting to take down this hideous mocking of the cadaver:

“Help me take her down”, she says, thus revealing her recognition that this is still an individual gendered person, not an ‘it’.

Daryl replies: “Don’t matter, she’s dead”. He therefore accepts Beth’s premise that this is a person, but that how her body is treated is of no concern. One is meant to speculate on whether this is a result of indifference, or active distaste by Daryl for the affluent golfers’ lifestyle.

In response, Beth explains abruptly, assertively and without further clarification: “it does matter”. Decency matters to Beth, even in the aftermath of the zombie apocalypse.

They find it difficult to remove her torso, so Daryl proposes a compromise which Beth accepts without further dialogue. They cover her up with a sheet while leaving her ‘mounted’ for display.

ep-12In the plot of Episode 12, this reveals the contrasting responses of Beth and Daryl to the destruction of the prison, the death of their friends and hope for the future. The corpse is a focus of their different strategies of coping with loss.

Mortuary archaeological perspectives on disrespect

For me, it makes me think again about the archaeological display of the dead in the starkest of terms, particularly regarding cases like ‘bog bodies’ and ‘deviant burials’ where a case can be strongly made that their treatment in death did not conform to norms of the day. Indeed, in many cases we can suggest the modes of treatment and burial cosntituted a public theatre of death in which the bodies of sacrificial or judicial victims were displayed to dishonour the dead and their kin and communities.

When we dig up such graves, display and curate them in museums and heritage contexts, we may not know their names. We may never know precisely who they were. It might be uncertain as to how they died. It might be very ambiguous regarding how they might have wished themselves to be treated in death or remembered. The dead do not bury themselves and the dead cannot speak.

Archaeologists are certainly not responsible for ‘respecting’ the dead by simply by retaining them in the manner by which they were disposed of, especially when it is clear they were afforded disrespectful treatment in relation to contemporary mortuary practice. Indeed, it might be argued that archaeologists need to be wary of perpetuating disrespect in doing so.

Still, we do have their bodies to contend with and our archaeological excavcations and analyses are intrusive and transformative. If part of a ‘rescue’ scenario ahead of development, we cannot ‘leave them be’ once they are uncovered. Instead, we have a responsibility to preserve by record their contexts of discovery, and analyse their remains. Our aim is to narrate their stories as far as we can know them and to the best of our ability. Arguably ignoring them, covering them up and reburying them without study are all disrespectful acts consigning them to oblivion and prone to future damage, disregard and decay. Likewise, leaving them on display with misleading or carictured labels and treatments afforded to them, without adequate explanation, could also be seen as a failure to adequately afford care and respect to the dead.

What I’m getting at is that showing ‘respect’ for the dead during archaeological investigations is not straightforward. What might constitute ‘respectful’ treatment might elude us in detail and in many cases it might be about showing the ‘least disrespect’. Still, many agree that, despite the popularity in the UK of displaying the dead in museums, the staged arrangement of dead humans is inherently troubling and troublesome, whether fleshed or unfleshed, articulated or disarticulated.

Where does this leave us? Well, The Walking Dead portrays a world where some still cling to a sense of displaying corpses is wrong. Even when cadavers lie around everywhere, discarded and unburied, deliberately arranging bodies is seen as immoral. Many others are indifferent or active in their indifference. As archaeological professionals, I feel we should display the dead and tell their stories; to do otherwise is to afford disrespect to past people and their lives. However, we must equally be wary of perpetuating past humiliations, and affording disrespect through indifference and passive gestures when dealing with mortuary displays.

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