Throughout history, a stigma associated with mental illness has occurred, and over time, evolved. Back in the Neolithic age it was believed to be caused by evil spirits and today, where it is more accepted medically, it still has a stigma due to a lack of understanding from some (Caddell, 2019). There are two divisions of the stigma, one coming from an outside perspective and the other being internal or self-perceived (Caddell, 2019). In this post, I am focusing on the external stigma generated by those who have prejudiced attitudes towards mental illness. This division of the stigma generates discrimination for those who experience mental disorders. In the article introduced to me by this course, “Up To 7,000 Bodies Found Buried Beneath University Of Mississippi Medical Center,” by Nina Golgowski, it is discussed that many of the patients at the Mississippi State Lunatic Asylum were buried after their passing without their loved ones being informed. The asylum was closed around eighty years ago, and the remains of those who were buried there was first discovered back in 2012. Now, the University of Mississippi Medical Center rests upon this grave site. A proposed excavation project would involve the uncovering and re-burial of those found in the mass grave site, and possibly using their DNA for identification. These patients were buried without record and without labeling, which can be seen as dehumanizing them. This poses a similar circumstance to the treatment of the zombies in our course reading of Colson Whitehead’s Zone One.
In the text Zone One, an apocalypse has taken place as a plague that has ran ramped. The plague turns humans into zombies, or in this text, they are referred to as skels. The skels are described as deteriorated, mindless, lifeless creatures. Mark Spitz, the main character who is not infected, explains the state of the skels he comes across stating, “After all this time, they were a thin membrane of meat stretched over bone…Two of them had lost their high heels at some point during the long years of bumping around the room looking for an exit” (Whitehead, 16). Through this description, it can be seen that uninfected humans in the text that encounter skels see them no longer as equals, but as a separate species of sorts. To those in Zone One who are unaffected by the plague, the skels do not register in their minds as human beings due to their physical changes brought on by the disease. This view on the skels and the brutal force put upon them to wipe them out completely, demonstrates how those taken over by the plague are being dehumanized. The skels are shown to be separated out from the rest of humanity, and when they are killed, no one takes the time to learn, let alone search, for their names or identification. As stated in the text, “He didn’t bother with names. No one cared about the names, not them, not the higher ups” (Octavia Butler, 62). This then prevents the possibility of trying to inform possible survivors of their loved ones if thy are found to be skels. In this case, the zombies are dehumanized, and the matter through which their bodies are handled after their death furthers this. At one point, the sweepers, those who go through buildings and areas to clear out remaining skels, throw the dead bodies of the zombies out of the building windows. As the sweepers go through the building, it is described, “For the first few weeks they tossed the bodies out the windows. It was efficient…It saved time and energy” (Whitehead, 74). By doing so, even Mark Spitz, a sweeper, recognized this dehumanization of the skels when the disposal team, who had to clean up the body bags discarded through the windows, spoke up about it needing to end. This is seen as it is stated, “It was disrespectful…Mark Spitz concealed that Disposal had a point” (Whitehead, 75). This example of dehumanization can possibly be related to the article by Nina Golgowski, “Up To 7,000 Bodies Found Buried Beneath University Of Mississippi Medical Center,” as those who passed away at this asylum were treated in a similar way.
At the Mississippi State Lunatic Asylum, many patients died and were then buried in mass graves in the land surrounding the asylum without their families ever being informed. This act of mass burial dehumanizes the patients not only through the style of burial, but also as their mental conditions could have been stigmatized by those who buried them, as they in turn, did not take ethical measures regarding their deaths. Today, a woman named Karen Clark discovered that a relative of hers passed away in the asylum and is therefore believed to be buried somewhere beneath its grounds. Her relative, Isham Earnest, fought in the War of 1812, and in the asylum, was ruled “insane”. It can then possibly be proposed that those with mental illnesses were seen as separate from those without mental illnesses, as a patient in a hospital for any other condition would of course had its family members notified of their passing. The director of UMMC’s Center for Bioethics and Medical Humanities, Ralph Didlake, states, “There’s a historical stigma associated with mental illness, and that’s very true historically, but this is an opportunity for us to deconstruct that stigma by studying that experience” (Golgowski, 2017). He insinuates that those in the mental asylum had stigmas against them, which then could have possibly lead to the dehumanization of them and their burials. With this in mind, the dehumanization of those with mental illnesses can possibly be compared to the dehumanization of the skels in Zone One. The carelessness applied to the skels after they are killed by the sweepers may be similar to the mistreatment of the patients in the asylum who were buried without record and proper notification of family members. An entire medical university was even built upon the grounds of the old asylum, insinuating little knowledge regarding this mass grave site.
Overall, it can be seen that in both cases, that of the asylum patients and the skels of Zone One, a group of individuals were seen to be dehumanized through their treatment by others upon their passing. In the case of burial, various cultures and ideals practice different burial styles, but generally, the concept of a mass burial without record and identification can be seen as disrespectful. Through this analyzation of the skels in Zone One and the patients of Mississippi State Lunatic Asylum, I question if a there is possible connection between the two. I wonder if there is a close parallel between Zone One and the stigma of mental illness through the representation of the skels. Is Colson Whitehead trying to draw my attention to those in my society who are dehumanized based on stigmas? I encourage my readers to ponder this thought as well.