When reading Zone One, the phrase “Bring out your dead.” really stuck out to me for some reason that at first I couldn’t place. Then, it hit me: it reminded me of Monty Python and the Holy Grail. I have embedded the clip above, but essentially, the person collecting the bodies of those who died from the Black Death calls “bring out your dead!” Eventually, around a minute in, one person tries to drop off a “body” that isn’t dead and hilarity ensues. [Sidenote: if you’ve never seen Monty Python and the Holy Grail or the musical version Spamalot, please do.]
Besides the obvious parallel between a not-dead body and the skels of Zone One, Colson Whitehead is clearly referencing the body disposal practices from the Black Death era as performed in this skit, performing a memory of another plague and another time of need for the prevention of the spread of disease.
One of the most infamous epidemics in history, the Black Plague is notable for its mortality rate, high rate of infection, distinctive way it affects the body of the afflicted, and repeated occurrences through three centuries of human history. Fear of this disease was so great that if one member of a household contracted the plague, the entire household would be shut in and condemned to death, contributing to the high mortality rate.
Funerary practices had to evolve with the plague. Medieval cemeteries were a bit of a mess, with proximity to family being prioritized over organization or separation from the living. As Roach writes, “…medieval burial custom decomposing corpses into hopelessly overfilled churchyards and crypts, whence the literally overflowed into the space of the living.” This, of course, was extremely unsanitary and not conducive to preventing the spread of the plague. Like today, religious funerary rights were the custom. These practices had to evolve with the plague, both for sanitary reasons and for expediency’s sake. One priest for a village can only do so much in a short amount of time for funerary rites, and with the sheer volume of bodies, these rituals had to be discarded.
Plague pits became the new favorite method of getting rid of plague-ridden bodies en masse, especially in London during the outbreak in the 1660’s, to the point where if a mass grave is discovered there it is usually explained as a plague pit. Body disposal personnel really did go out on the streets with carts like in the Monty Python skit, picking up dead bodies from the streets, then putting the body into plague pits which were filled in once they reached maximum capacity.
Similar situations occurred during the Spanish Flu outbreak of 1918-1919. In 2015, the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation found a mass grave of people killed by the Spanish Flu. This pandemic is not as well known as the Black Death, but it killed 3% of the world’s population during its peak after World War I.
Notably, it was in post-plague, post-Great Fire London that the distinct separation of the dead began, with the first designated cemeteries being incorporated into city planning. According to Roach, this is in part due to the Enlightenment philosophers, who called for the segregation of the dead from public spaces.
Now, to return to Zone One. With the bodies in the street and the unnamed, almost invisible collectors disposing of them, it is clear the Whitehead is referencing the history of plagues and body disposal, particularly the Black Plague. Similarly, the act of shutting in the affected, as well as the general pathology of the zombie disease, recalls the Black Death and other deadly plagues. In this way, he is executing a very Roachian performance of memory, reminding us of the survivability of the human race in face of massive epidemics, and acknowledging a shared history of the separation of the living and the dead.
I don’t know how to end this post- I know that there is more to unpack but I can’t quite place my finger on what. Maybe someone else will figure it out and thus continue this discussion of disease and memory.