Respect for the Dead

In Colson Whitehead’s novel Zone One, the story follows Mark Spitz and his fellow “sweepers”. Being a “sweeper” involves leaving the safety of the camp and ridding a designated area of Zone One of zombies. The primary target of the volunteer sweepers were zombies known as “stragglers”. Stragglers are a form of zombie that is not outwardly aggressive and present a reduced risk to the remaining unaffected. Stragglers are thought to be “mistakes” as the Lieutenant puts it. These zombies are stuck in a task or in a location that had some significance to them during their life and posed no threat except the slight possibility of infecting others. Whitehead describes stragglers as regular people that when infected become trapped in a moment after being infected. He describes the straggler existence as “…winnowed to this discrete and external moment.” Stragglers are a small percentage of the zombie population that do not attack humans. In essence, stragglers are like humans that paralyzed in shock. The zombies and the healthy are regular people that are only separated by the fact that some are infected and others are not.

Mark Spitz and the other sweepers are tasked with simply putting a bullet in the head of any straggler they find and place the body in a body bag. I, along with Mark Spitz,  have some apprehension about the treatment of the stragglers. When Mark, Gary, and Kaitlyn find a straggler bent over a copy machine, Mark instinctively asks the group “What if we let him stay?… He’s not hurting anyone.” His indication of unease caused a similar feeling for me. What if the infection can be cured? The Lieutenant explains to Mark that there are Nobel prize winners working on a cure. In my opinion, because the stragglers do not present a clear danger and have the potential to be cured, they should be kept alive until their affliction is completely understood. They may still be, at least partially, human.  However, I understand the panic associated with keeping these zombies alive because the knowledge of the plague is not yet completely understood. Mark explains fearing the unknown by saying “The plague doesn’t let you in on the rules; they weren’t printed inside the box.”

This idea reminded me of something that I had overlooked while reading. That even if stragglers weren’t curable, they still were once human, as were the skels. The sweepers treat the remains of the infected with indifference. It was common practice for sweepers to simply place a body into a bag and throw it from a window to the street. The practice was only halted because it created a mess and a possible source of infection, not because they were defiling the remains of someone formerly human. The Disposal unit disposes of bodies by the use of a machine called “The Coakley”  which is capable of converting almost all of the infected remains into smoke and ash. The lack of humane treatment of the remains is clear in the speech of one of the disposal technicians Annie, “Usually we like to stuff as many as we can in there before we fire it.” The cremation of the remains is conducted without any sort of care and respect for the dead. All of these zombies, through no fault of their own, were infected by a plague. Does the mere fact that they were infected prevent their remains from receiving the same respect as the remains of healthy humans? There are many cultures and religions that call for certain treatments of the dead, and none of them involve being shot out of an incinerator as ash by the handful. Ashes of the dead cover New York City. It is important to note that the characters in the novel would have no way of knowing what post-mortem rituals that the infected desire. However, I believe that the healthy should at least attempt to treat the remains of the dead with respect because they too were once fellow humans.

The mass disposal present in Whitehead’s novel is parallel to actual historic events of maltreatments of corpses. Nina Golgowski, of the HuffPost, reports that approximately 7,000 bodies were located under the University of Mississippi Medical Campus. This land was home to the Mississippi State Lunatic Asylum 80 years prior to the mass grave’s discovery. Like in Zone One, these remains were disposed of in an efficient, though careless, way that was not in agreement with the post-mortem wishes of the deceased. Many descendants of the inhabitants of the asylum wish for the bodies to be exhumed and identified in order to learn about their family lineage and finally determine what happened to their ancestors. I believe that this needed to occur for a greater reason. The insane asylum inhabitants were never given a proper burial. The Social Life of DNA, by Alondra Nelson, describes events after the discovery of a mass African-American burial site in 1991. Hundreds of African-American slaves that lived during the 1600s were buried underneath what is now lower Manhattan. In an effort to determine genetic information on the inhabitants of the ground, the bodies were exhumed. However, the researchers failed to treat these remains with respect as well. The exhumation was conducted with “…little consideration given to the conservation of the remains.” Their remains were treated as if they were less than human in life.  It is noble to want to identify the dead in order to give their families closure about their ancestors, but the bodies themselves are worthy of respect. Like in Zone One, the infected were discriminated against after their demise. These are all human remains and deserve to be treated with the respect that they warrant as recently deceased human beings. Whether or not the remains belong to former slaves, those considered mentally insane or people who have been infected, they deserve proper burials or cremations. After all, our last acts as humans are to be put to rest.

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