In a series of posts, I’ve explored the treatment of the dead in the AMC series The Walking Dead, focusing on the contrasting treatment of inhumation and cremation in the post-apocalyptic fictional world in which the living dead walk the Earth. I’ve suggested this dramatic portrayal of funerals reveals core ideas about the body, identity, mortality, mourning and commemoration in contemporary Western culture, and a rather old-fashioned American attitude to the sanctity of the grave and negative associations with cremating the dead.
What I haven’t explored yet is the inherited landscape itself. As Rick Grimes and his group traverse a land infested with ‘walkers’, we encounter cities, towns, villages and farms abandoned, inhabited only by the undead, or populated by survivors. A wide range of buildings are explored, including hospitals, office blocks, shops, warehouses, factories, a prison and even a golf clubhouse.
The opening credits of the show evoke the abandoned landscapes of the US state of Georgia once the dead rise – scenes of vehicles and buildings visited by the characters as they struggle for survival appear, evoking the storyline and reminding the view of the ultimate civilization collapse which has transpired.
Now funerary landscapes are widespread elements of American film and television, and in a show about the walking dead, it is unsurprising to see them showing up alongside the makeshift innovations of prosaic and informal disposal methods adopted by those still alive for those they lose. Yet in the context of the zombie apocalpyse, they have a specific significance. Cemeteries and churchyard memorials represent a double death – the death of death corporealised by ‘walkers’ is juxtaposed with the death of funerary culture and commemoration. Graves are no longer dormant, they are ruins. Traces of a now-abandoned funerary culture now stand as epitomising the breakdown of social norms and networks and the distance of the living from mourning, and the vast chasm between death and resting in peace.
This theme, however, is slow to emerge. In Season 1 we meet no pre-existing funerary monuments – the focus is upon new makeshift disposal methods. Yet in Season 2, when searching for Carol’s daughter, the group chance upon a baptist church after hearing a church bell calling the faithful to prayer. Running through the graveyard towards the sound, the graves flash by. Their hopes are dashed when they realise the bell is emitted digitally by a timer. Inside the church are ‘walkers’ instead of the lost girl. It remains intriguing as to how the grass is so clear in this cemetery; it is far too well-tended for months of abandonment. Yet the living do not meddle with this funerary landscape – they only rapidly navigate it.
The funerary landscape receives brief attention in every episode of Season 3 via the opening sequence which includes a graveyard for the first time. Photographed low down, with long grass growing around them, they are signs of abandonment prior to the zombie apocalypse. A gravestone displaced for safety and situated beside its former base, another seemingly with its top broken off. They now constant double-decay: the slow decay of neglect augmented by the return of nature accompanying the walking dead as civilization falls and not only abandon obsequies but graves of the tend are no longer tended.
Things begin to get interesting in Season 4 where we first of all see the repeat of the same churchyard in the opening credits. In addition, we find Daryl and Beth encounter a cemetery and an adjacent funeral home. In the cemetery, they stop and pay their respects to a grave of a father: Beth clearly reflecting on the death of her father. We then see a brief glimpse of the cemetery as Beth and Daryl approach the funeral home. This is the first depiction of the characters interacting with pre-existing funerary spaces in a meaningful, if brief way. Again, the neat arrangement of the grass around the gravestones denote the presence of mystery lawnmowers operating long aft To balance this respect, inside the funeral home, Daryl displays his usual disregard for social norms by using an open casket as his bed, noting its comfort.
This season also sees the first-ever connectivity between the funerary practices encountered, and those performed by the characters. At the farm where Carol, Tyresse and the girls encounter, they discover a line of three graves – presumably family members who adopt a comparable makeshift funerary strategy to those independently concocted in Season 2 at the farm and Season 3 at the prison – woodened crosses with significant grave-goods suspended from them. Here, we see the evocative image of a pair of shoes hanging from a smaller cross at the foot of what is clearly a child’s grave. Significantly, Carol and Tyresse respect these existing graves, adding their own to a new row in front of them but respecting the same arrangement and alignment.
Therefore, in Season 4, we see the parallel encounters with graves of those interred from before the end of the world, and responses to graves of those who perished after the end of the world.
A new funerary landscape is encountered when we move into Season 5. First, the Season 4 grave from the farm, depicting the shoes of the girl whom we never see are depicted in the opening credits. She had survived the apocalypse but was laid to rest beside her parents adjacent to a tree in the front of the farmhouse, is featured in the opening credits. This mirrors the burial geography of the barn in Season 2.Moreover, at St Sarah’s church, we see multiple passing glimpses of the overgrown graveyard of the parishioners. Traversing the graveyard when arriving and leaving the church punctuates the storyline. Moreover, when a member of the group dies, they get to join with these pre-existing graves, as do the enemies of the group. This is a significant shift, since for the first time we see similar disposal locations adopted for friends and enemies of Rick’s group.
Evidently, the dead are part of the world of The Walking Dead: manifesting the double end of death itself: (a) the end of death without reanimation, and (b) the death of mortuary commemoration. Yet by Season 4 and 5, we see the start of interactions between characters and pre-existing funerary spaces; showing attempts to connect mortuary practices before and after the end of the world.