I’ve finally had the privilege of watching Deadwood Season 1, from 2004. This is a striking and gritty reconstruction of the frontier and gold mining settlement of Deadwood in South Dakota in 1876, with all its violence, sex and death. Real historical personages are characterised but those out there who get confused: remember this is fiction.
Following a long tradition of portraying the makeshift and fluid mortuary practices in the Western frontier of the 19th century, the show depicts and adapts 4 key dimensions of mortuary practices and environments that feature in many Westerns and other media. In the series, they serve to punctuate the demise of characters and materialise the burial environment of the ‘frontier’ and show that sometimes the ‘mourners’ can be the ‘killers’ too:
- Mr Wu’s pigs – who receive all the clandestine corpses for porcine consumption;
- The Creek – where bodies are kept cool awaiting burial;
- The settlement’s cemetery;
- The Sioux sky-burial site.
The pigs are a gruesome disposal option without ceremony. The creek never appears. The Sioux sky-burial I might return to in a separate post. So let’s focus on the cemetery’s portrayal: the Ingleside cemetery, later overtaken by housing and the bodies moved farther uphill to the Mount Moriah cemetery of the real world Deadwood.
This is fascinating in itself as a portrayal of a frontier cemetery, but also because it provides a model for untold numbers of visualisations of Western ‘frontier’ burial ground in all manner of genres, even the zombie apocalypse I’ve discussed in relation to The Walking Dead.
The location is malformed, dirty and immediately proximal to the settlement above the road. It is thus depicted downslope from the tents and settlement but upslope of the main artery of movement into the camp. There are trees and rocks, and freshly cut-down tree stumps showing the clear newness of the entire enterprise.
Grave markers are all of wood and are modest and simple: either crosses carved from single pieces of wood taken from large trees or wooden slabs. Both forms are overtly skeuomorphic of carved stone memorials in a general sense.
The new and yet ephemeral nature of the cemetery is further denoted by the lack of a boundary or clear marked paths or other cemetery features.
The Cemetery, Episode 2
The cemetery is first encountered in Episode 2 where the reverend and two mourners – Sol and Seth – oversee the burial of a man slain in a gunfight.
The Cemetery, Episode 3
We are back in the cemetery for a second burial: another man slain in a saloon by Wild Bill Hickok. An added feature here is a pair of mules and a wagon used to convey the body to the cemetery, and one of the graves consisting of a cross grave-marker but also a hurdle fence around the plot to afford it added protection.
The Cemetery, Episode 5
We return to the cemetery for a third time for Wild Bill Hickok’s funeral with Reverend Smith kneeling at the graveside. This time we see multiple perspectives on the cemetery and see graves marked crudely with the names of occupants if known: one says ‘N. Mason’, another ‘Unknown, March’.
The Cemetery, Episode 7
We see Brom Garrett’s funeral: his coffin shown relatively well-made given his wealthy status and that of his widow. Still, it is in plain wood and lifted down into the grave with ropes in a simple and modest fashion. We don’t see his grave marker but we presume it will look like the others. We see the cemetery with a full crowd in attendance. We also see Hickok’s grave, neatly marked with his name and date of death.
Visiting Hickok’s Grave
Most fascinating of all is the 19th-century visitation of the grave to dialogue with the dead. This happens on multiple occasions. In particular we see Charlie Utter and Calamity Jane visiting Hickok’s grave at night and talk with the dead man. This evocative scene brings to the fore the 21st-century perception of 19th/early 20th-century graves; as places of conversation with the dead person in the days and weeks after their death. From Captain Nathan Brittles in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon to this example, this dimension of death and mourning has long pedigree in film and television: the frontier grave is ephemeral, fragile, yet noble and iconic.