When we first encourage the Hilltop community in the post-apocalyptic world of the television show The Walking Dead, they cremate their dead within their small compound. This stood in stark contrast to the makeshift mortuary programme of Rick’s group where inhumation had become the norm. Yet, through the presence of Maggie Greene and the graves of Glenn and Abraham, an inhumation cemetery emerges. This serves as a focus of resistance to Negan’s Saviours. This is further articulated as the cemetery grows and is swollen by the dead of those slain by the Saviours, whilst the Saviours who die are buried outside the community’s walls.
After a time-jump of c. 5 years, the death of a lead character midway through Season 9 provides an opportunity to witness what has transpired the Hilltop burial ground. The initial markers were wooden sticks and boards, mimicking the style of the Alexandria cemetery but contrasting in that wooden crosses were not a feature of the Hilltop cemetery. Yet the passage of time is marked in the show by the emergence of a distinctive funerary tradition.
We see the earth-dug grave being excavated, linking to the previously discussed significance of public grave-digging as a memorial practice as seen in earlier seasons of the show. However, they need to go a lot wider and deeper than this paltry effort if they wish to insert a grown-man’s body!
Yet we see a clear difference emerging, the open-air grave-side funeral taking place with an open coffin that is publicly nailed shut while prayers or reflections are said to the dead person. Without a place of indoor worship, at the Hilltop, the coffin has a pivotal role within the cemetery space before burial.
This is emphasised by the nature of the coffin. It is seemingly a reused piece of high-quality furniture, perhaps from within the big house itself. The much-loved character’s coffin therefore articulates status and affinity among the mourners, both in its scale and substance, enhanced by its public display.
So, the grave-digging, public display of the corpse within the open coffin, and the coffin’s quality and scale, and its display and nailing shut, together are important elements of the funerals conducted at Hilltop. Yet there is also clear evidence of the cemetery as a maturing commemorative environment.
First, each grave no longer possesses an upright wooden marker, but instead is demarcated by a kerb of stones and a small mound of pebbles.
Second, a circular area and a small stone bench mark a place of reflection for the small burial ground in its entirety: we see Henry and Daryl sitting on the bench before the inhumation takes place.
None of this is driven by the comic books: this is a specific attempt by the TV show to create a sense of a memorial environment emerging from the chaos of the conflict with the Saviours. As such, it shows how television productions are extending and enhancing reflections on death, burial and commemoration following catastrophic events and conflicts.
Therefore, while the Hilltop’s adoption of inhumation graves initially followed the lead of the Alexandrian community, over time it has developed into its own distinctive character. Like the Alexandria cemetery it is within the walls and at the back of houses, but unlike it, stone kerbs, modest cairns and a bench create a distinctive mortuary landscape. What we are therefore seeing in The Walking Dead is an emerging story of a community through its care and treatment of the dead, continuing the underlying narrative that the treatment of the dead defines human sociality even in the face of zombie hordes.