As Archaeodeath fans will know, I’ve explored the material cultures, mortuary practices and memorialisation depicted in the zombie apocalypse drama The Walking Dead, covering to date seasons 1-9. As the all-time longest-running televisual representation of a post-apocalyptic world, it is fascinating to explore it from an archaeological perspective.
How does it show people dealing with dying, death and the dead following the collapse of our civilization? Specifically, how does it show people distinguishing between the dead and the undead in their dealings with mortality?
The central tenet of the show reflects on what it takes/means to be human, and the care and attention, disrespect and disregard of the dead is portrayed as central to that, and material culture and burial and memorial spaces are media for negotiating this.
I now wish to move over to evalute its sister show: Fear the Walking Dead (2015-) from an Archaeodeath perspective.
I’ll be clear: while I love The Walking Dead, but I just adore Fear the Walking Dead (created by Robert Kirkman and Dave Erickson). It is one of the best things ever on TV: darker, meaner, grittier and also somehow more hopeful than even The Walking Dead. It is also different in that it is designed and produced for TV, now inspired by existing comic books as with TWD and now runs to 6 seasons. The setting is also extremely different too, rather than the East Coast setting of Georgia, we are plunged into the zombie apocalypse in LA as it happens. Surviving the military takeover and its aftermath, the survivors take to the sea. They travel south to Baja via Santa Catalina Island, then back to Tijuana before heading back across the US/Mexican border into southern California and the South-Western states more broadly.
In doing so, we follow generally unlikable and some nasty lead characters and horrendous groups surviving the apocalypse with all manner of twisted and unusual attitudes towards life and death. Some embrace the apocalypse, others go further and see it as an opportunity. It’s a dark and fascinating ride through 21st-century American culture and society as a result, with a diverse cast and critical reflections on class, politics, economics, language, race, age, sexuality and gender. It finds all manner of scenarios and storylines that differ from TWD whilst also portraying connecting themes, and from Season 4 a connecting character firmly linking the shows as part of the same post-apocalyptic universe.
One constant from Season 1 is the treatment of the dead in the post-apocalyptic world. As with the comics and TV show TWD, the ‘respectful’ treatment of the named dead, even those who have ‘turned’ is to afford them with an inhumation. In episode 3, hHaving killed their neighbour, Peter, who had turned, the characters are posed with the question: what to do with his body?
Having eaten a neighbour’s dog and tried to attack the family, Peter was shot twice in the head at point-blank range by Daniel Salazar. Travis Manawa wraps the body and takes it out into the backyard to dig a grave for him. Daniel Salazar questions this, suggesting that he should be burned to prevent the spread of infection. Travis objects because he was a named individual, a neighbour, and should be afforded burial. Burial = respect. Burning = disrespect. When Madison Clark is queried by soldiers regarding the disturbed earth, she lies (in part), saying it is the burial of the family dog, thus saving her family from being executed as ‘infected’.
The counterpoint to this humane treatment of Peter’s body is the horror revealed during the group’s escape from the military base. Here, they encounter all the cremated bodies of individuals who had been infected, combined with those who had died of other injuries, and those who were clearly killed by the military for all manner of reasons from being sick, disabled and mentally unwell. Orphelia Salazar is especially traumatised by this, knowing that the body of her mother and Daniel’s wife are lost somewhere in the mountains of the cremated bones. The camera shows us a child’s doll on top of one pile: a haunting image of mass-death. This inability to find Griselda’s body will become a key feature of Daniel’s and Orphelia’s story in Season 2….
If viewers were in any doubt about the morality of the group’s plan to destroy the military base and attempt to retrieve those of them taken by the military, Liza, Nick and Griselda, this doubt is removed by the sight of the cremated dead and a digger used to move the vast piles of bone and ash. The military had been effectively slaughtering the ‘weak’ civilian population in panic, but for a select few. The military were pulling out in any case, abandoning those few. At the start of Season 2 we learn that the US military then set about napalming all the US cities in an attempt to curb the contagion. In FTWD, the state and the military are not your friends when the apocalypse arrives.
The distinction between individual inhumation and mass cremation are the poles around which the morality and remembrance of the dead are negotiated by the TV show: named and individual versus unnamed, lost and intermingled. This televisual mortuary morality very much mirrors TWD but in FTWD we will be shown further powerful reflections on the interactions of the characters with dead bodies, material cultures and monuments in defining what makes us ‘human’ in the face of mass-death and civilization-collapse.
I think both TWD and FTWD display an ignorance of the fuel and technology required for complete open-air cremation. So, I have not claiming the depictions are ‘accurate’ in any regard. However, they display a stark contrast in the treatment of ‘loved ones’ as opposed to ‘others’, and a perceived oppositional morality and sociality of different mortuary disposal methods.
Further blogs will tackle death and the dead in Season 2 and beyond…