Who doesn’t love a good zombie story? Tales of the walking dead have been around far longer than most people realise, and a little digging into zombie lore, coupled with some observations drawn from history and non-zombie culture, reveals a surprising thing concerning the often-present ‘zombie cremation’ trope:
Modern zombies were built to be burned.
The mythology of standard zombie lore is designed, whether intentionally or unintentionally, to prepare the infected bodies of the undead for disposal by cremation.
Taken together, a zombie’s initially accelerated rate of decomposition, their potential to cause contagion resulting from open-air rot, and the fact the only way to successfully kill a zombie is via the destruction of the brain (which necessitates the piercing of the cranial cavity), are all the same conditions required to prefer and perform cremation over bodily internment.
A Few Fun Facts About Cremation…
Burning the remains of a fully-grown adult human is far more difficult and time-consuming than you might expect. It requires far more technical expertise than burial, especially in post-apocalyptic landscapes (frequently the setting of zombie narratives), that do not allow access to modern day crematorium technology.
In order to properly dispose of human remains and reduce them fully to ash, the fire’s heat has to reach 800 F (about 427 C), a far greater temperature than a few haphazardly stacked logs and accelerant can achieve.
Effective cremation pyres are constructed to be tall and wide, generally in a rectilinear shape. They’re built to direct the heat of the fire inwards and upwards while maintaining structural integrity long enough to support the weight of the body while it is fully immolated. A properly built pyre functions much the same as a chimney, ensuring the remains catch quickly and relatively evenly, suspended above the super-heated epicenter for long enough to begin to generate their own heat.
A burning body will reach a much higher temperature, ideally about 1000 F, or about 538 C, the temperature threshold that ensures ash and bone rather than remains in various stages of char or, for lack of a better term, roast.
In addition, if remains include a head and the cranial cavity has not been pierced, the eventual result ia a brain that literally boils, increasing the pressure within the skull until the head explodes.
So if you’re burning zombie bodies and any were stabbed through the lower jaw, it’s best to include a central headshot just in case the disposal team is in range. (Think of it like Sea World – the first five rows will get wet!)
Why The Cremation Trope Is Often Wrong
Even with the best of conditions and a well-built, open air pyre, and everything going perfectly, it still takes an hour an a half to burn a single body from start to finish. That’s assuming it burns evenly and nothing happens to make the fire stall or go out (wind, rain, early or unbalanced collapse of the structure, attack from hordes of the undead, etc.).
A further six hours are required before the remains fully cool.
So cremation is a long, notoriously difficult, sunrise-to-sunset process that goes wrong more often than it goes right, even for highly experienced ritual specialists.
The Walking Dead‘s slapdash bundle-of-sticks-soaked-in-gas method wouldn’t be able to lightly toast a single human body all the way through, much less fully destroy dozens upon dozens of zombie corpses at a time.
Supernatural, which includes zombies on occasion and portrays the characters performing cremations for the remains of various adult humanoid creatures with regularity, requires only a shallow grave and a can of gas to effect full immolation.
In contrast, the historical drama Vikings actually does quite well, with high, carefully and solidly built pyres in one episode that are lit after dark and are still smoking the next morning.
Game of Thrones also does a fair job of it in structure, although Jon Snow lighting Ygritte’s pyre and then immediately walking away almost guarantees something went wrong thereafter, with his unwillingness to monitor the burning through at least the initial half hour making it entirely possible Ygritte was only half consumed and then dragged off by a wild animal, or a White Walker.
If you spot a badly charred and reanimated Ygritte in Season 8, don’t be too surprised!
Why Zombie Cremation Is A No-Brainer
If cremation is so difficult, why do it at all?
The simple answer is the risk of contamination.
Multiple zombie mythoi include a virus or illness to explain Patient Zero, making the body of a zombie hazardous waste from the moment of inception. Burying zombie remains risks contaminating the ground itself, the water table for the immediate area, and the burial team.
Fire, on the other hand, acts as a purifying agent, destroying any chance of the disease spreading from the body. The more advanced the decomposition the more bodies can be burned within the same pyre space.
Add to this the destruction of a zombie through a kill method that almost always results in a puncture to the skull, and zombie bodies have also been prepped for the cremation process by the method required to kill them.
Not only is zombie cremation the logical way to dispose of the undead, it seems to be the natural endpoint for them as a result of the way the mythology surrounding zombies is constructed, the method needed to kill them, and the fact the transformation into a zombie is frequently a contagion that only fire could effectively destroy.
Zombies really were built to be burned.
Grace Horman has a degree in history, is currently studying archaeology, and has always had a deep and abiding love for science fiction and fantasy. When not writing, reading, or researching, she tries to catch up on all the TV shows she’s behind on (all of them except ‘Game of Thrones’) and fantasizes about living in their worlds (most of them except ‘Game of Thrones’). She lives in the UK across the street from a library and could ask for nothing more.