The classical depiction of the “living dead” in old stories was fairly literal: The long-deceased, through necromancy, witchcraft, or some other form of magic, would rise once more to roam the earth in a complicated state between “living” and “dead.” While the concept of the dead rising once more to wreak havoc on the living dates as far back as ancient Mesopotamian mythology, the term “zombie” originates from Haitian folklore, which involves the raising of the dead from a sorcerer known as a bokor.
Modern depictions, however, tend to rationalize zombies by giving them more scientific explanations, often combining them with our fear of widespread epidemics by linking their creation to disease. By this definition, a zombie wouldn’t have been a person to have ever truly “died.” In the novel Zone One, despite the fact that the zombie outbreak was started by a plague, that has not stopped the characters from referring to the creatures as the “dead.” It would appear that the inhabitants of the fictional world of Zone One had adopted a new definition of death to serve their linguistic needs, better corresponding with the concept of “brain death” to emphasize that the skels had “passed away” from being human.
Mark Spitz looks at the skels as one would look at any corpse: with the acknowledgement that a person, with a life and personality, once inhabited that body. Only this time, it’s still moving. They carry with them remnants of their previous lives, including clothes, jewelry, and decomposing hairstyles. These hints of who they once were would allow Mark Spitz to commit futile, but well-intentioned, performances of memory on their lost humanity. That is, of course, before he or his team put them out of their miseries.
Unfortunately, Mark Spitz’s quick acknowledgements of their former lives are as much of a burial service that the mindless bodies would ever get. History has shown that prolonged memory in death is a privilege granted to only those with the power to afford it: The only names to come out of ancient Egypt are those of kings, the identities of Holocaust victims are reduced to the numbers on their arms, and millions of slaves in America were buried without the ability of their loved ones to mark their graves.
In times of crisis with substantial causalities, memorializing the dead becomes a matter that’s too pragmatically trivial to afford. The disposal of the abundant dead (or “dead-dead”) in Zone One, with the constant flow of bodies into a massive furnace, is as undignified as it may be depressingly necessary. The process begs the question: How much dignity do the dead deserve when their presence is overwhelming? Should efforts be made to preserve their memory if no one that actually remembered them is present? Is it truly worth it in the end?
It’s likely that the dead don’t appreciate the preservation of their memory. It’s hard to say if they’d ever witness it. But memorializing the dead is indeed useful to the living, for the performance of their memory is useful for a living individual to gain wisdom from the sacrifices of their predecessors, or humility from the circumstances that allowed them to be a survivor. Remembering the dead is important because it allows the living to live more empathetic lives. Even in a zombie apocalypse, the living dead are still potential vessels of memory.