In Zone One, Mark Spitz repeatedly comments about the ash in the air – its in the rain, its on his skin, it coats his lungs. It is not until Mark Spitz details the invention of the “Coakley” incinerators and describes the burning of skels that the reader can begin to understand what the ash means to Mark Spitz.
I want to provide some interpretations on what the ash might represent, as well as share a related anecdote from a Green-Wood Cemetery blog post about a woman’s wishes for the post-mortem handling of her body, and how Mark Spitz’s thoughts on the ash reminded me of this woman’s experience.
Mark Spitz’s perception of ash all around him is a self-diagnosed symptom of his Post-Apocalyptic Stress Disorder (PASD), as well as a physical reality from the mass-burning of Skel bodies. I have not been able to parse the book’s timeline to determine if Mark Spitz was seeing ash before he knew of The Coakley and its use, although I do know that Mark Spitz started seeing the ash after he was rescued from Northampton (233). Regardless, analyzing Mark Spitz’s description of The Coakley allows us to begin understanding the interaction between his perception of ash and the machine which creates it.
It burned things. Here, it burned the bodies of the dead with uncanny efficiency, swallowing what the soldiers fed it and converting it to smoke, fly ash, and a shovelful or hard material too stubborn to be entirely consumed. Hearts, mostly. That thick muscle. (232)
Certainly, when the machine fired, it generated a localized atmosphere. But the ash did not shroud the metropolis, it did not taint the air in any sickening measure. […] But for Mark Spitz it was everywhere. In every raindrop on his skin and the pavement, sullying every edifice and muting the blue sky: the dust of the dead. It was in his lungs, becoming assimilated into his body, and he despised it. (232-3)
He kept it to himself, this particular face of his PASD […]. It was a low-level hallucination as such things went, no real impairment. (233)
Mark Spitz is clearly imagining some of the ash he is feeling, but the ash also does exist in the world as the remains of Skels – save for their hearts, which are too dense to burn. The image of once-human bodies going into an incinerator, then the remaining hearts at the bottom being shoveled seems like it would come straight out of a heavy metal music video, but conceptually it reminds me of the pain in rebuilding after a tragedy. When a person dies, friends and family who knew that person might feel gaps in their own lives which the person had once filled, so these people must account for the life lost by considering the spaces the person had occupied in life and the space they occupy in death.
Considering these ideas of space after death In Zone One, the Skels must be accounted for both physically, in terms of managing the space they take up, as well as mentally, in terms of the survivors coping with loss and PASD. The clogging of dead Skels at the bottom of Zone One’s wall is what leads to the cracks in the dam and allow the Skels to flood in. Their space cannot be accounted for quickly enough, with broken cranes and a constant stream of Skels to be incinerated.
It is also worth remembering that Buffalo only cares about the names of the living and not of the dead, so the incineration of Skels can be seen as an attempt to erase the dead from the realm of the living without accounting for who they were in life and skipping over the mourning of their death. It is inhumane, but necessary in this apocalyptic world to survive and allow rebuilding to start.
Turning the Skel bodies into ash would be akin to their cremation, so the handling of Skels’ ashes and Mark Spitz’s perception of ash all around him reminds me of the act of spreading a person’s ashes after they are cremated. From my pop-culture-based knowledge, the reason for spreading ashes is so that the person who has passed can be carried along the wind and exist in an area they loved or which they had expressed desire for. Mark Spitz seeing ash all around him could represent the haunting presence of the Skels’ past identities which he struggles to come to terms with. The ash might represent the Skels that Mark Spitz had killed and refused to acknowledge the identity of (neither Buffalo nor Mark Spitz care about their names), or it could represent the Skels of people who Mark Spitz knew in life but whose deaths Mark Spitz did not account for, instead choosing to ignore their inevitable deaths/transformations into Skels. The latter aligns with Mark Spitz not wanting to find his uncle, and with his template Last Night story ending at seeing his mother as a Skel eating his father then running away ever since (in that Mark Spitz was running for his life but also running away from acknowledging the loss of his parents’ lives).
Along the vein of handling one’s body post-mortem, in thinking through this blog post, I remembered two different blog posts that I had seen earlier in the semester – “From Disaster, Hope” and “From Disaster, Hope – A Follow-up” on Green-Wood Cemetery’s website. The first blog post discussed the cemetery’s efforts to rebuild after Hurricane Sandy caused massive damage to the premises, finding a silver-lining to the damage in allowing woodworkers to pick up the fallen trees and use them in their own workshops, stated to be used for bowls or furniture. The follow-up post two months later shows pictures of the tree-pickup process, with logs as large as a car being piled up and driven away.
On the second blog post, Cynthia Beal posted a comment telling a story of her own post-mortem wishes, which is as follows:
[I wish I could put a photo of Beal’s comment, but the website is not letting me, so I copied and pasted her comment below instead]
Being buried under a cherry tree would allow Beal to find life again (via decomposition) in the tree and in its cherries; the tree would feed her life to the birds; and eventually the tree would get cut down and her life thus donated to a woodworking school, giving other people valuable learning experiences and bringing life to new goods.
Decomposition is a natural process, unlike incineration, but both the spreading of ashes and the recycling of one’s body serve to channel one’s existence throughout their environment. The way Beal describes the recycling of her life after death makes the process seem more peaceful and productive; in a way these plans satisfy the inherent fears people have when nearing death – they will look back upon their life and question if it had been meaningless or caused any change in the world (according to Erikson’s stages of psychosocial development).
The post mortem handling of bodies that Beal proposes is very different from the way Skels are handled in Zone One, but if we consider Beal’s logic, that bodies can intangibly flow through an ecosystem, carrying a person’s once living essence and life, it makes sense that the ash Mark Spitz sees distributed around his environment represents either the identities of the Skels he killed and refused to acknowledge, or the Skels of people he knew in life but whose deaths he did not account for.
This is a great little story, and I’m so glad that Greenwood is 1) engaged in these activities and 2) talking about them. When I started my business almost a decade ago (selling biodegradable coffins and urns to promote natural cemetery management) I had a small bout with cancer.
During the “making final plans” process, I created instructions for being buried naturally, under a tree – a native Oregon Cherry to feed birds, of course – and then cut down in “my” prime, and gifted to a “school for woodworkers to make into instruments and bowls”.
As I faced the upcoming surgery and cancer-recovery period, there was great comfort in imagining that, even if I exited a bit prematurely, I’d someday have parts of myself making music and feeding people, continuing The Work that I’ve found so much meaning in during this very precious life.
Thanks again for keeping the life so visible in Green-Wood Cemetery.