Following my series of Archaeoodeath blog posts charting ‘zombie mortuary archaeology’ via the AMC TV series The Walking Dead, I’ve moved back to the original graphic novels to see how death, burial and commemoration is represented in the stories that inspired the show. The Walking Dead has been published since 2005 by Robert Kirkman. Focusing on Compendium 1 (issues 1-48), I identified similarities and differences between the novels and the TV episodes in which the burial, cremation and commemoration of the dead are portrayed. I now move onto Compendium 2: comprising issues 49-96, written by Robert Kirkman and drawn by Charlie Adlard. These roughly equate to the latter parts of Season 3, Seasons 4 and 5, and the start of Season 6 of the TV show, although of course the storyline and characters were augmented and adapted for TV significantly in some points within a similar structure and direction to the narrative.
As before, I include some cropped, low-resolution images from the graphic novels to illustrate my points.
Two Big Differences and One Similarity
One aspect that is alluded to in the TV show at the prison was a far greater aspect of the graphic novels: actual dialogues with the dead. Both Rick – via a disconnected telephone – and Michonne, talk with dead loved ones. Rick’s relationship with his dead wife, via the telephone, runs through the show. Material culture is key here: it isn’t just any telephone, but this particular telephone, found in a house on their travels from the prison.
Another difference is that in the original graphic novels, there are none of the pre-existing funerary landscapes that are depicted in the TV show. Only for the graveyard of St Sarah’s do we briefly get shown pre-apocalypse stone grave-markers.
Now for a general similarity. While attempted suicide is depicted in Season 2 of the TV show, this is adapted from a far more graphic version in this chapter. Likewise, both comic and TV formats show the group encountering people who gave up and ‘opted out’: corpses of those that committed suicide punctuate the journeys of characters in both novel and show.
Chapter 9: Here We Remain
Rick, Carl and Michonne escape the devastation of the prison and group up. They had back to Hershel’s farm to re-join with other survivors. In this chapter, there are no burials, cremations or memorials in this chapter.
Chapter 10: What We Become
Rick’s group are on the road: no funerals or graves are depicted.
Chapter 11: Fear the Hunters
Looking back to the graphic novel also reveals that the TV show adapted the theme of how the dead are treated when the group are on the move. Rick’s party are on the highway when twin boys die in succession in horrible circumstances. They are buried next to each other, within sight of the road. In the TV show, this is adapted to a different environment: an isolated farmhouse with an existing post-apocalyptic makeshift burial ground. Two sisters are buried and mourned before Carol and Tyreese move on. So, I learn from this that the TV show extends a sense of the ‘historic’ landscape of pre-existing burial grounds encountered by the characters inhabiting the post-apocalyptic world. In the novel, new graves are just added to the natural landscape, albeit in a location so that subsequent travellers might see the graves.
Also in this chapter, we see fire deployed in two contrasting fashions. First, the group of cannibals are slaughtered by Rick and his group. Their bodies consigned to a makeshift pyre. Cremation is here disrespectful and cursory, perhaps deliberate, discard of the dead. And yet still Rick and his group perform the task rather than leave the corpses to rot. No explanation is given for this choice, but a striking and disturbing spectacle is created..
Second, in a more honourable fashion, and somewhat in contrast to the treatment of all the other named and ‘loved’ members of Rick’s group, Dale is cremated. Dale has been infected and so that might be part of the motivation for burning his body. It is also stated that this is the way he would have wanted it: leaving no trace. This isn’t fully explicible from what we learn of Dale.
Notably, his pyre is in a holy place and the graveyard of St Sarah’s. Dale’s pyre is a focus of group respect, with Father Gabriel standing centre and forward watching the flames, with the silhouettes of pre-apocalyptic gravestones in the foreground (mentioned above). This is a powerful scene, and also distinctive, since no ‘good’ named character receives such a method of disposal in the TV show.
The cremation becomes a focus for more than mourning. As the crowd leave the still-burning pyre, Rick stays back to reflect and ‘talk’ with Abraham, only to realise that Abraham is gone and Carl is there himself beside him at the pyre, confessing to his violent acts. Thus the pyre is a focus of reflection and confession: a pivot around which the plot revolves and then moves on.
Chapter 12: Life Among Them
The group reach Alexandria and the man in charge, Douglas Monroe, is introduced. There is no mortuary practice in this chapter.
Chapter 13: Too Far Gone
This chapter is packed with funeral elements. Douglas Monroe shows Rick the cemetery of Alexandria: clearly in a secluded position in the community since Rick admits ‘I had no idea this was even back here’. Douglas explains: ‘we’ve lost people here, but it’s not something we like to dwell on.’ So respect is afforded to the dead, but in modest and almost a ‘secret’ space.
The graves are consistent in height and, rather than crosses, they take the form a more secular, wooden, rectangular grave-markers. This is replicated in the TV show, although more details regarding location and proximity to the perimeter wall are visualised for TV. See my blog-posts here and here.
Douglas and Rick argue, and the graves serve as an indirect warning to Rick: evidence that evidence the haven of Alexandria has seen discord and death. Then the viewers get to see one of the names on a gravestone: Alexander Davidson. Here the cemetery serves to visually link to the past and forewarn of the future, since later we learn that Douglas killed the former leader of Alexandria, Davidson, by exiling him from the community. So the grave depicted in the Alexandria cemetery is actually a cenotaph: a reminder to Douglas of his own foul deeds and perhaps a mnemonic to the rest of the community of what happens to those that transgress.
While the cemetery appears similar in the TV show, it isn’t deployed in a comparable way to evoke memories of the community before Rick’s group arrive. Instead, in the TV show the cemetery embodies the cohesion of the community, serving as an active focus of new memories linked to the deaths of key characters. We see it grow as new dead join it and mourning unfolds.
In this chapter, there are 3 consecutive deaths, and they are mourned together in the church of Alexandria in a single funeral. They are afforded parallel graves and memorials in the Alexandria cemetery. We do not see it, but presumably near-identical wooden grave-markers are raised over them.
Meanwhile, a group that attack Alexandria are treated like the undead, and burned on a mass-pyre beside the gates of the community. So both the cannibals and these marauders get ‘disrespectful’ mass-cremation, in stark contrast to inhumation being reserved for loved ones.
Whilst the TV show takes burning the dead outside of communities, we’ve seen at the prison and the farm a different take in the graphic novels. In the comics, burning takes place within the walls, but close to them. Still, while adapted, the use of cremation to define ‘others’ is apparent.
Chapter 14: No Way Out
The undead attack Alexandria and many die, but there are no burials, cremations or other mortuary practices show in this chapter.
Chapter 15: We Find Ourselves
Clearing up Alexandria after the zombie attack involves mass-cremation of the corpses: exhausting and messy work, and yet again we are shown a world where human bodies conflagrate with seemingly no fuel. Once more, in contrast, those that die are added in rows to the pre-existing cemetery, with the living standing together, seemingly in prayer and silent respect, at the graveside. Father Gabriel holds his bible to his chest, Rick, however, seems to lead the mourning and stands at the front of the group.
Also in this chapter we find Michonne mourning at one grave in particular. Noticeably it is not afforded a grave-slab, but a cross. This is Morgan’s grave. It is afforded a treatment akin to those of Rick’s group who died before they reached Alexandria at the farm and prison and along the road. Does this articulate a sense of distinction in itself: Morgan was never fully a part of the Alexandrian community?
Next, we see Rick back at the graves in the Alexandria cemeter, mourning Ron and Jessie in the snow, communicating with them both, then silent and alone. Grave are again places of community but also personal mourning and dialogues with the dead. As at the prison, it is Rick who communes via the graveside.
Chapter 16: A Larger World
Finally, Rick and his group encounter the Hilltop community, and the story is here matched directly in the TV show. The historic nature of the community finds close parallel between books and TV. Also, the Hilltop community cremate their dead in contrast to Rick’s group and Alexandria. While in the TV adaption, Rick’s group see a cremation pyre burning from afar and do not comment on this practice at this stage, in the original graphic novel, they approach the pyre. A fight breaks out since Rick had killed the man being mourned. Glenn sees the choice of cremation as rational and at this stage nothing further is said.
With the exception of Dale, we see a similar evolution in mortuary practice to that adapted for TV in terms of mortuary geography, monumentality and technology. There are differences: the relative lack of pre-apocalyptic cemeteries and graves is notable, as is the greater emphasis on portable artefacts to commune with the dead. Cremation takes place within the community as opposed to outside it. Still, themes are clear. Bad guys as well as the undead are burned, while the cemetery is a locus of the community’s past and is augmented as a place of burial and mourning.
The final emerging theme is striking: cremation can be a positive mode of disposal. Dale’s treatment, and then the practices of the Hilltop, stand out as contrasting, respectful uses of cremation. It will be interesting to see how this practice unfolds in Compendium 3!