The AMC series The Walking Dead portrays a prosaic and negative attitude towards burning the dead in the fictional future of a zombie apocalypse. For those struggling to survive, fire is afforded to the infected and those who are slain once turned, as well as to dispose those ‘out of sight’ (as employed by the Governor in Woodbury). Zombies are also swiftly and deliberately dispatched of by fire in a range of scenarios. See my previous posts about mortuary practice in The Walking Dead here for a fuller consideration of these various practices. In contrast, simple inhumation is the preferred method of disposal for Rick’s group.
Yet in Episode 6 (Consumed) of Season 5 we encounter the first overtly positive disposal of the dead by fire. This takes the form of the crude partial cremation of a ‘walker’ woman and child. Although the distinction is maintained of burying ‘us’ and burning ‘them’, and this is the continuance of the disposal of the infected seen in previous episodes, this is a specific choice by members of Rick’s group to employ fire as an act of care for the dead.
When Carol and Daryl re-enter Atlanta in search of Beth, they take shelter at a woman’s refuge that Carol had used before the zombie apocalypse to escape from her violent husband.
While at the refuge, Carol says ‘we don’t get to save people any more’. Yet at least in death, Daryl shows his first compassion for the ‘walkers’ to prove Carol wrong.
They hear the dead clawing at windowed doors. We are left to speculate as to why the woman and child are here: presumably taking refuge from the apocalypse at a sight they were familiar with. In other words, this was not just any woman and child; we are meant to imagine these are abused just like Carol and her daughter. The place and relationship of the walkers is therefore particularly jarring for Carol.
Despite this specific disturbance for Carol, she immediately without hesitation goes to deal with them. However, Daryl stops her, telling her: ‘you don’t have to’. He then stops her physically when she moves forward a second time with the words: ‘you don’t’. In doing so, Daryl prevent her trauma of killing a female child, evidently the same age as her own daughter, Sophia, lost in the barn in Season 2.
The next morning, Carol awakes to find that Daryl has left her to sleep all night. She sees smoke outside the window and goes to investigate. She finds that Daryl has killed the woman and child and is busy burning the bodies, wrapping them in white bed-clothes before adding one, then the other, to a makeshift pyre.
Carol watches through the window has Daryl adds the second cadaver to the already burning pyre. She watches for a while before then walking outside to stand by Daryl as he stands back having placed the second cadaver. Together they watch the flames and the smoke rising upwards. She says quietly, ‘thank you’. He acknowledges with no words, just a double nod.
Burning the dead might be considered a display and therefore a danger to their covert mission in Atlanta, but the position in an open-air space inside a high-rise means that the ascending smoke is for their eyes only.
Fire sparks memories. Before moving to a scene where Carol and Daryl leave the refuge for downtown Atlanta in search of Beth, there is a brief flashback to Carol and Tyrees burying the girls after their death in Season 4 (and no, I haven’t dealt with that episode in this blog, it is too harrowing) while they watch the fire in the distance that brought burned zombies in their direction.
We are perhaps also expected to imply Carol remembering her killing and burning of Karen and David when they became infected by a virus at the Correctional Facility in Season 3 and the burning of the barn in which her daughter had been held as a ‘walker’ in Season 2. Fire has dogged Carol’s journey as she both cremates and buries loved ones and fire triggers her memories of past deaths and losses. Also, for Carol, fire forges links between the anonymous ‘walkers’ and loved ones she has lost, notably her daughter Sophia.
This short scene also shows how Daryl’s sociality, loyalty and caring increasingly emerge, particularly through his relationship with Beth and Carol and how he learns to treat the dead with respect, as discussed previously at the golf club in season 4. By burning their bodies, risking being spotted, Daryl shows that people can be ‘saved’, at least in so far as to afford them some basic obsequies.