Over the last 20 months, I’ve written a series of Archaeoodeath blog posts about ‘zombie mortuary archaeology’: how we can explore contemporary fiction’s portrayal of the zombie apocalypse and how the dead are mourned, disposed of and commemorated following the collapse of ‘Western civilization’. What I hadn’t done was to look back to the comic books to see similarities and differences between the genres’ treatments of this theme. Looking now at the original comic books for The Walking Dead, I’m interested to see how many of my observations regarding the portrayal of mourning and mortuary practice in the TV show owe inspiration to the comic books, and what, if any, are the key differences.
The comic book inspiration for the TV show – The Walking Dead – was first published from 2005 by Robert Kirkman with artists Tony Moore (Chapter 1) and Charlie Adlard (Chapters 2-8). It has become a bestseller. I here focus on Compendium 1 only (Chapters 1-8 – the first 48 issues).
Note: I include some cropped, low-resolution images from the books, but they can be readily removed if this causes objections.
The comic’s story structure is more basic than that subsequently adapted for TV with Chapters 1-8 expanded and restructured, but in general terms it corresponding to, Seasons 1-3 and the first half of Season 4 of the TV show. The TV adaption including additional plot lines, different and additional characters (most notably Merle and Daryl, Beth and Sasha), and removes further characters (Allen, Donna and their twins, for example, much of Hershel’s family, Tyreese’s daughter and boyfriend). Of those characters that are found in both, there are some significant re-arrangements of their roles and relationships, including the timing and circumstances of their deaths. Still, the broad-brush structure and sequence of action revealed in the comic books has been followed by the TV show as follows.
Rick is a Kentucky cop who wakes in hospital recovering from a gunshot wound and finds the undead have taken over. He cycles home and encounters Morgan and and his son, Duane. Together, they raid the police station for supplies and heads into Atlanta to find his wife and child. He is saved from zombies by Glenn. The plot subsequently unfolds in the same sequence of key settings in both comic book and TV series: the camp outside Atlanta, Hershel’s farm and then the prison. Most significant for our purposes, the material cultures and costumes, architectural and landscape settings are quite faithfully retained between comics and TV series for each of these. But what of mortuary practices?
In each of the three key locations that Rick’s group inhabits, the group initiates funerary practices in a fashion that is mirrored and developed by the TV show. We aren’t shown the preparation and transportation of the cadaver (in contrast to the TV series where elements of this are depicted), but loved ones are consistently inhumed and wooden crosses raised over their graves. In this fashion, incipient cemeteries are established.
Yet simple earth-dug inhumation operates in relation to a clear duality in conceptualising death and its relationship to disposal. At the Atlanta camp, no disposal method is afforded to the slain undead. Yet on Hershel’s farm and subsequently at the prison, the ‘undead’ are cremated. In the TV show, this practice starts earlier, at the camp outside Atlanta. Cremation is shown impractically in both the comic book and TV show, but the TV show does attempt to show some use of wood as pyre-fuel.
As with the TV show, the choices made regarding how to dispose of the dead are not explicitly rationalised by the characters and might be taken as prosaic, although in the TV show Glenn is depicted as being influential in configuring the positive affordances of inhumation while cremation is considered a potential mode for containing the virus.
The comics and TV together afford a sense of how people envisage people dealing with individual loss against a background of mass-death, once medical facilities and the late-capitalist funerary industry has expired with the onslaught of the undead. In this new world, cremation is never positive, inhumation with a simple grave-marker affords respect to loved ones.
Now, some details.
In Chapter 1, at the camp, the first funeral is shown following an undead attack at night which kills Amy. We don’t see the detail of how her cadaver is treated and prepared for burial, or its transportation to the grave. Instead, we join the graveside scene in cold winter conditions. A stark and simple wooden cross marks Amy’s grave. Andrea and Dale are the principal mourners and stand at the front of the group. Andrea kneels in mourning. No Christian ceremony is articulated, and the group depart, leaving Andrea alone to mourn her sister. In many regards, this is closely followed by the TV show, which adds the idea that Jim has pre-prepared the graves, anticipating the worst.
Next, and in contrast, we are shown the death of Jim. Following his wishes, he is abandoned and left to ‘turn’ and thus ‘be with his family again’. The structure of frames showing people departing the still-living Jim as he rests against a tree is comparably depicted to the group slowly leaving Amy’s grave. Jim is already the living dead. Again, this is mirrored closely in the TV show.
We begin this chapter with a flashback to Lori and Shane’s brief romance, before the second graveside scene, adjacent to Amy’s. Lori with Rick and Carl and the rest of the group farther back, are mourning at Shane’s freshly back-filled grave. He is also given a wooden cross. His grave is close to, but not parallel with, Amy’s. Lori is at the front and again as people walk away, following the same structure as Amy and Jim, Lori is inexplicably (to Rick) left alone to mourn, and the viewer knows this is because of their affair.
A further feature of Shane’s grave is that his ‘Police’ baseball cap is suspended from one of the cross-arms: a feature of personalising graves with portable artefacts that we see in the TV series picked up for other characters in Season 4 and then again in Season 5 (note: Shane never gets a grave in the TV show).
The focus then moves from the camp, once abandoned, to Hershel’s farm. Once on the farm, the barn of zombies kill some of Hershel’s children and the undead are slain. The group are shown mourning at the foot of three new graves, each with a wooden makeshift cross raised over it. We aren’t told who they are, but they are evidently Shawn, Arnold and Lacey (Hershel’s adult children). Hershel and his remaining four children are shown mourning in close proximity and at the ront of the group of mourners.
In the distance, behind the group, a bonfire burns. Nothing is made explicit, no decisions, no rationale, yet presumably the fire constitutes the disposal of the bodies of the other undead individuals whose names are unknown and who were certainly not family members. So while we are given no explanation for this contrasting spatial and technological disposal, the TV series respects and adapts this portrayal. In the TV show, the contrast is made between the ‘front’ and ‘back’ of the farmhouse, while in the original comic, the graves are implied to be close to the farm, while the mass-burning is more distant (See my blog on the TV scenes here). Both representations play on the idea of different treatments and disposal locations for different people: the loved and the named vs. the collective undead and the unnamed. Significantly, this division cross-cuts whether people had ‘turned’: family and personal affinity is more important.
Rick returns to the farm to find the cremation tradition of Hershel has persisted for those undead slain in subsequent attacks. And again, returning to the prison, Tyreese is seen doing the same practice of open-air mass cremation for zombies killed on the prison’s perimeter. In all instances of cremation, there is no sense of the gathering of fuel required for the pyre. Instead, the bodies seem to burn themselves, although the TV show attempts to rationalise this impractical portrayal but suggesting that gasoline-fuelled partial cremation is being performed on the undead.
Notably, when Tyreese finds his daughter slain and her boyfriend the killer in a failed suicide pact, he murders him. He burns both their bodies, presumably to conceal the crimes/mode of death, even though he loves is daughter dearly. This is notable: cremation is afforded to ‘bad deaths’, not just the undead! Presumably the bodies of the criminals in the prison receive the same fate?
A distinctive grave interaction not included in the TV series is Rick’s return to Shane’s grave to dig him up, following the realisation that all those that die will ‘turn’ regardless of whether they are infected. Because Shane never gets a grave in the TV series, this interaction isn’t replicated in the show. It also is interesting, because Rick is able to slay Shane himself, and then disrespect him by not reburying him. Hence, this underpins the respect initially afforded to him, by displaying him upon is already created grave, dug-up and dispatched by a bullet to the head.
With the death of Allen, we get the first ‘good death’ in the prison, but we don’t see his funeral or burial as the action follows Rick.
Rick visits Allen’s grave: from what he says it is now a regular (?daily) practice. Again marked by a simple wooden cross, the grave is within the compound. Rick states is preference for this mode of disposal even though he wasn’t responsible:
I can’t tell you how happy I am they decided to bury you instead of burning you. It makes me think of you more as being at peace, and I enjoy these talks, even though they probably go a long way to keep people thinking I’m crazy.
So inhumation facilitates ‘peace’ but also personal dialogues with the dead at the graveside: a theme enthusiastically taken up by the TV series which even shows Rick seeing apparitions of his dead wife at her graveside. Strikingly, in the background, the juxtaposition of disposal methods is emphasised again. Outside the compound or towards its edge, the mass-cremation of the undead continues…
A further and third dimension of dealing with the dead emerges in Chapter 5, namely the disrespect shown for the undead by the Woodbury community, notably by the Governor himself. He has his undead heads in fish tanks. Also, he uses the undead for public entertainment for the community. Finally and by way of contrast, he keeps his undead daughter locked up, whom he refuses to kill and treats as if she is still alive. Adapted for the TV show and extended, the theme here is evident that those that do not understand or respect even the undead, are the bad guys, unable to realise that civilized behaviour rests on the respectful treatment of loved ones, but also the proficient dispatching of the zombies.
We see the persistence of cremation as a modern of mass-disposal of the infected at the prison. Characters are shown taking the corpses outside, away from the buildings, for this process. (This process is shown taking place in the woods beyond the compound in the TV show).
With the death of Carol, her grave is positioned next to Allen’s, and a fabulous over-head scene in rain depicts the mourning of the group beside the grave, equivalent to the proto-cemeteries established at the Atlanta camp and Hershel’s farm. Once more, the group gather, seemingly without verbal utterances, at the foot of the grave, with a Christian affinity alluded to only in the shape of the grave-marker. Once again, the precise arrangement of the characters can be ‘read’ in terms of affinity, ambivalence and indifference to the deceased. Sophia, Carol’s daughter, holds Carl’s hand at the front of the group.
There are no additional funerary dimension to this chapter, and the prison’s community is decimated and dispersed before the cemetery can develop further. This contrasts with the storyline of the TV show where the cemetery expands within the prison compound.
In the post-apocalyptic zombie world, we perceive a makeshift set of mortuary practices emerging around dialogues with the inhumed dead in simple graves with wooden cruciform grave-markers within the bounds of habitations. In many regards, the treatment of the dead returns to the arrangement of the frontier cemetery of the 19th century.
In contrast, the undead, the anonymous masses, and those of the community afforded ‘bad deaths’, are taken outside the habitation area and afforded a basic, unceremonial partial mass-cremation. Cremation is afforded only negative and prosaic associations.
The TV show has different characters and different fates to the characters shared with the comics. Still, the dichotomy of inhuming loved ones and cremating the undead is clear and stark in the comic and, as in the TV series, not overtly explained.
This is the inspiration for the TV show, which extends and elaborates this contrast, and enhances the juxtaposition with the ‘evil’ characters who abuse the undead rather than simply dispose of them.
So we have a triad of mortuary practices operating following the zombie apocalypse:
- respectful treatment and dialogues with the inhumed dead
- rapid mass-/multipe-cremation
- abuse of the dead