The Walking Dead, a horror show about flesh-eating zombies, has become a television sensation—perhaps the most popular cable program on the air today.
For those who don’t watch, here is the basic premise: A mysterious zombie disease has infected all of mankind. It doesn’t make people sick (unless they are bitten by a zombie), but shortly after death by whatever cause, the virus transforms the corpse into a voracious eating machine that (not who) can only be killed by destroying the brain. In other words, “walkers” are not living people possessed; rather, they are animated dead bodies. Indeed, walkers decompose over time, adding to the show’s horrific environment.
The Walking Dead’s popularity stems not so much from its extravagant and explicit zombie violence, but rather from the series’ superb writing (and stellar acting), which uses the premise of apocalypse to delve into some of the deepest and most interesting subjects that concern the human condition.
(SPOILER ALERT): Take as one small example this season’s story of “Deanna,” played by the wonderful Tovah Feldshuh. Deanna is the leader of a walled sanctuary community called Alexandria, which, for reasons too complicated to get into here, remained mostly untouched by the millions of ravishing zombies roaming the former Commonwealth of Virginia.
But nothing remains safe for long in the world of the The Walking Dead. Thus, soon after becoming a plot point, Alexandria is devastated by a massive herd of insatiable walkers who crash through the walls and dine on its residents. In the midseason cliff hanger, Deanna, dying from a walker bite, makes an Alamo-like heroic last stand to give other characters a chance of escape.
Fast forward two months and Alexandria has been saved. The compound has been refortified, and all seems well.
But a few of the main characters are acting strangely. They keep leaving the safety of Alexandria to enter a nearby forest infested by wandering walkers. The shocking answer to the mystery of their suicidal recklessness is soon revealed: Deanna’s wandering walker corpse has been spotted. Her devoted friends seek to honor the person that she was by destroying the zombie life parasitically inhabiting her dead body and then giving her a proper burial—which, in a moving scene, they do.
Why risk death and walkerhood just to bury a dead friend? The brief story of Deanna after her death powerfully reinforces the Judeo-Christian belief that, in some fashion, human dignity continues after death, an ethic reflected in the handling and disposition of our bodies.
That perception seems to be changing with increased secularization—a point celebrated recently in a column in The Guardian lauding the stripping of sanctity from funerals. From “Are We Ready to Face Death Without Religion?” by Adam Lee:
For centuries, the Christian church wrote the script for how westerners deal with death. There was the deathbed confession, the last rites, the pallbearers, the obligatory altar call, the burial ceremony, the stone, the angels-and-harps imagery. Yet that archaic and stereotypical vision of death, like a mossy and weather-worn statue, is crumbling—and in its place, something new and better has a chance to grow.
New, yes. Better? Perhaps not.
One trending secular approach for discarding bodies—I can’t think of a more apt descriptive—is liquefaction. The BBC described the system thusly:
The system works by submerging the body in a solution of water and potassium hydroxide which is pressurised to 10 atmospheres and heated to 180C for between two-and-a-half and three hours. Body tissue is dissolved and the liquid poured into the municipal water system.
Having one’s remains poured into a sewer sends a powerful symbolic statement that human beings are nothing more than the sum of our chemistry, just as reverential burial says we are something more.
True, eradicating the body as treated sewage remains a niche market. Cremation has become the primary disposition of choice today—both for the religious and secular—for various reasons, including the often outrageous expense of traditional mortuary services.
This trend is not theologically neutral. This is why non-reformed churches discourage or ban cremation—and would surely not countenance liquefaction—for reasons germane to our discussion. The Eastern Orthodox Church follows the original Christian practice of burial—preferably without embalming—rejecting cremation except in extreme circumstances. The reasons for this are both historical (it was a pagan practice when the Church was new) and theological. As the Greek Orthodox Church website puts it:
Because the Orthodox Faith affirms the fundamental goodness of creation, it understands the body as in integral part of the human person and the temple of the Holy Spirit, and expects the resurrection of the dead. The Church considers cremation to be the deliberate desecration and destruction of what God has made and ordained for us. The Church instead insists that the body be buried so that the natural physical process of decomposition may take place.
Illustrating the symbiotic connection in traditional Christianity between the living and the dead, the above discussion on burial is included in the broader subject of “Church Positions Regarding the Sanctity of Human Life.”
Deanna’s story asks us to ponder whether the dead bodies of human beings matter morally, both as a reflection of once living persons and because of what they represent metaphysically about the human condition. If we ever get to the point that our remains are viewed as so much waste material to be done away with as efficiently as possible—and that is the direction in which we seem to be headed—then The Walking Dead’s haunting “Deanna walker” plot will make no sense. Once we believe that we are simply carbon atoms gathered temporarily in a rational and animated form, it will become a matter of indifference how those atoms are dispersed once our animation ceases.
Wesley J. Smith is a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute’s Center on Human Exceptionalism. His next book, Culture of Death: The Age of “Do Harm” Medicine, which will be published in 2016.Become a fan of First Things on Facebook, subscribe to First Things via RSS, and follow First Things on Twitter.