Mortuary monuments from before the apocalypse (as discussed here and here), and the graves of loved ones who pass away (see multiple posts including this one about Eastman’s Cemetery and this one about Alexandria’s cemetery), are prominent features of the mortuary and memorial landscape of AMC’s The Walking Dead. In previous posts I’ve shown how this expands and enhances the way the dead feature in the comic books by Kirkman and Adelard. In contrast, exposed and skeletonised remains of the dead are a rare feature of TV show and similarly they are rare in the comic books.
At one level, this makes sense, given that all the dead are still walking about. Yet I would contend it is a striking incongruity to the ruinous and dilapidated landscapes of factories, farms and homes encountered in the show. The dead are everywhere and simultaneously oddly absent! So I feel it is striking that while characters do encounter semi-decomposed cadavers at various junctures, we have to wait until Season 5 to encounter the first inanimate skeleton.
Moreover, it is only in Season 8 that we encounter cremated human remains deployed in the plot. I confess that in my previous review of the dead in Season 8 of The Walking Dead, I was remiss in mentioning how Eugene Porter eludes re-capture by Rosita and Daryl by using piles of burned bodies – presumably the result of earlier stages of the apocalypse and cursory mass cremations – as a strategy of concealment.
The piles of cremated human remains containing pulverised ashes and a few recognisable skulls, rib cages and long bones might not be fully convincing traces of mass open-air cremation followed by the subsequent collection of the cremains. Perhaps one would expect far less crushed powdered bones and far more diagnostic human bones if these were actually the remains of open-air cremations of human bodies. Yet, it is certainly poignant as a symbol of mass disposal without ritual: one imagines communities unable to cope and fearing contagion, conducting this level of mass-burning. Moreover, the range of colours, textures and varied degrees of fragmentation are evocative of piles of countless human bodies subject to intensive conflagration.
Still, it is a striking plot device which serves to show the canny ability of Eugene to do the unexpected and immerse himself in the polluting nature of cadavers and bones to avoid those chasing him. After all, this action immediately follows Eugene having induced himself to vomit over Rosita and jump behind approaching ‘walkers’ who attack her, while Daryl was occupied slaying more of the walking dead. His carefully timed strategy allows him to return to the Saviours and complete his work making the bullets for Negan’s men. In so doing, he is able to foil Negan’s plans in a double-cross in a fashion he couldn’t have done if he’d remained a captive of Daryl and Rosita. Like Father Gabriel who gets sick in Season 8 having covered himself with the bodily fluids of the walking dead, Eugene stops at nothing, finally burying himself alive among cremated bones to allow him to finally do the right thing. His temporarily self-immersion in cremains thus marks the stark rebirth of Eugene’s character following the horrors of the deaths of Glen, Abraham, Sasha and so many of his former companions. Ashes are part of his journey back to redemption, so to speak.