In earlier seasons of The Walking Dead, cremation has been portrayed as negative in almost every sense, deployed through necessity, if sometimes with kindness and care, to dispose of the bodies of the undead as well as those just deceased. This path was set in Season 1 and was perpetuated with nuances through to Season 6. Indeed, we find Morgan burning the undead in Season 6, and in Episode 7 of Season 7 we learn that Negan’s Saviours, like the Governor’s Woodbury, burn their dead in a perfunctory manner.
In Season 6, however, Rick’s group encounter a new community – Hilltop – and they appear to hold a contrasting attitude towards burning the dead. The Hilltop settlement practice cremation as their exclusive mode of disposal.
Why? Availability of wood, utility, the limited space available for graves within their defended compound, might all be cited as motives for the Hilltop community cremating their dead. Yet there seems to be a mnemonic explanation offered to us.
Encountering open-air cremation at Hilltop
On Rick’s group’s first visit to the Hilltop, some of the community’s men return from a drop of equipment with Negan. One of them, Ethan, attacks Gregory on the orders of Negan’s men and Rick kills him. Following his death, we see one of the female’s of the group mourn him. Then, we see the cremation ceremony from a distance as Michonne and Rick look out from Barrington House. They cremate him on a pile of wood and stand back in a circle watching with respect but without further ritual.
Gregory’s pro-cremation rage
We later return to the central theme of cremation in Episode 5 of Season 7. Sasha and Maggie are at the Hilltop, and Sasha has buried the bodies of Glenn and Abraham. Again, as at Alexandria, the graves are placed beside the defensive wall of the settlement. Sasha has placed memorials on the grave and, when Maggie joins her, Hershel’s watch is placed on Glenn’s grave: the gift Hershel had given him.
Gregory, the leader of Hilltop, is angered by their impromptu creation of an inhumation burial culture. He finds them and asks who created it. He is clear and assertive: Hilltop burns the dead, it does not bury them. At first glance, it appears that we are set for yet another negative association of cremation as prosaic and disrespectful to the commemoration of the dead. But then we learn something different.
Jesus explains cremation as a mnemonic practice
Reflecting on this dialogue, later Maggie asks Jesus: “why do you burn your dead?”
Jesus replies: “The idea was, just to keep going”.
Maggie retorts: “What do you have to remember them by?”
Jesus explains: “Us”.
Cremation still remains a prosaic or utilitarian choice, but now it is recognised that the fiery destruction of the body does facilitate remembrance: transfering memories to the living. By cremating, the living become witnesses and repositories of memories of the dead in the absence of corporeal traces. Obviously, cremation doesn’t actually operate like this, but it is fascinating how such a stark contrasting perception of cremation vs. inhumation is contrived for a series imagining the end of the Western world and where the dead come back to life…. Maybe TWD is realising cremation is a good idea after all!