December 19, 2010
The (Not So) Great Zombie Apocalypse
With the advent of "The Walking Dead" on AMC I found myself discussing with a friend what we'd do if "The Great Zombie Apocalypse" actually happened. My friend agreed with what another person had said to him. Namely, that if "The Great Zombie Apocalypse" happened he'd get himself down to Wal-Mart and hole up there. Although I could see the reasoning behind that decision I said it was just a modern day rip off of the 1978 movie "Dawn of the Dead" where the survivors take refuge in a mall.
"No," I said, "if "The Great Zombie Apocalypse" comes I want to be in India." India because Hindus cremate. Good luck to the zombies trying to reconstitute themselves from ashes scattered in the Ganges river. Even better would be Japan. Virtually 100% of the dead are cremated in Japan plus it's an island nation so you don't have to worry about the dead crossing the border from some country with more zombie friendly burial customs. In Japan "The Great Zombie Apocalypse" would be "The Great Yawn of Nothing Much."
But the conversation got me to thinking. What if "The Great Zombie Apocalypse" did happen here in the United States? Would it be an apocalypse destined to overrun this country? Or would it be something we could handle -- messily, incompetently at first (this would be the government we'd be counting on to take action), but dealt with in the end as the news teams descend like vultures to caper in carefully hidden glee at the story of the century?
First, you've got to consider we're not talking about that many dead. We're only talking about the fairly recently dead. Decomposition is a fact of death. Rates of decomposition vary tremendously. A body exposed to the elements can skeletonize in months. Decomposition happens faster above ground and in a hot, humid climate. In those above ground crypts the New Orleans' cemeteries are so famous for, decomposition happens so rapidly you're actually allowed to place another body in them only a year after the previous interment. But in other parts of the country bodies have been exhumed after many decades and have not skeletonized, but look pretty much intact as far as surface tissue.
However, for a body to no longer be suitable zombie material it doesn't have to be skeletonized. All that has to happen is for the brain to decompose to the point where it's no longer usable. And the brain is one of the earliest organs to decompose, right after the digestive organs and the lungs. Bacteria eat through the roof of the mouth; once into the brain, the bacteria chomp into it ---- well, with the same relentlessness as a zombie has for brains. The brain is liquefied, and what's left of it pours out through the ears and froths out of the mouth.1 Embalming can postpone that process but not prevent it. Even buried in a temperate climate I'd think -- in my totally unprofessional, top of my head guess -- that any body older than 10 years would no longer be suitable zombie material because the brain had rotted into so much goo.
So you'd only have to worry about the recently dead. And here's where we get into American burial customs. Because contrary to every vampire movie ever made, there's the obstacle of how we bury the dead.
Most of the coffins sold in the good old United States of America are metal, usually steel. Try punching your way out of that.
But in a fact known in cemeteries but
little thought of by people who aren't in the trade, coffins, even
steel ones, aren't that strong. Strong enough not to be punched through
by a fist. Not strong enough to stand up to the weight of the dirt
above it and the weight of the heavy equipment driving on top of it.
Coffins collapse. That's why graves sink and cemeteries used to have to
periodically add dirt to the gravesites. (In Mythbusters season 2
episode 5 "Buried Alive" the coffin started to buckle from the first
scoop of dirt on it. See Jamie Hyneman be buried alive in a steel
Aha, you're thinking, so the zombies might be able to free themselves from their coffins. They might, assuming the collapsing coffin didn't just crush and pin them but somehow warped in a way that the zombies could escape.
Except there's a peculiarity unique (as far as I know) to American cemeteries: the vault and the grave liner. American cemeteries don't like the fact that graves sink in. It looks untidy. It requires additional work on their part to keep going back and filling in the graves. So even though it's not required by law most cemeteries won't let a body be buried unless it has at least a grave liner.
What are vaults and grave liners and what's the difference? I'll quote from Stephen King's "Pet Sematary" since he's the one who first introduced me to them:
"A sealing vault was a piece of construction work.....concrete was poured into a rectangular mould reinforced with steel rods, and then, after the graveside services were over, a crane lowered a slightly curved concrete top into place."
"Grave liners were simple matters. Such a liner was no more than a humble concrete box, open at the top.....The sextons then brought on the top, which was usually in two segments."
A vault may be made of concrete as King described or they can also be made of metal and be as elaborate as the coffin itself.
And a grave liner doesn't have to be a concrete box with a lid. The simplest grave liners cover only the top and the sides of the coffin, not the bottom. But they're sufficient to keep the weight load off the coffin so it will not collapse.
Either way the zombies are screwed. They get to spend their reanimated lives stuck in their metal coffins while their bodies rot around them.
Even Jewish custom which requires wooden caskets still allows the use of a full liner around the coffin as long as the liner bottom has holes in it and dirt placed in it. So even if the zombie somehow makes its way out of the coffin, and with a solid wood casket that's not such an easy thing to do, it's still going to be stuck inside the concrete grave liner.
Instead of fearing the zombie attacks, kids will start daring each other to go to the cemeteries to listen for them: put an ear to the ground and try to hear their moans or stand next to mausoleums and knock on them to rile up the zombies. We'll see videos of it on YouTube (until irate relatives demand the kids are stopped because they're harassing their loved ones).
It might even be a temporary financial boon to American cemeteries as a whole new business line springs up of families having loved ones exhumed so they can be "taken care of" and then reburied to rest in peace. And if families don't choose to have it done, it won't be long before there's a Federal law requiring it.
That's here in the U.S.
I don't claim to be familiar with burial practices for every country in the world. But from what I do know, the parts of the world where "The Great Zombie Apocalypse" is really going to be an apocalypse are.........Islamic countries. Traditional Islamic funeral practices call for the body to be wrapped in a cloth shroud and buried without a coffin. It's perfect conditions for zombies. The dead will be rising all over the place in countries under Islamic law. And I can hear the commentary from Pat Robertson and his ilk: That it's a judgment of God upon them. But histrionic calls about God's judgment aside, those countries are going to have their hands full trying deal with the dead.
Back to this country. The vast majority of the zombies are going to be staying put in their graves. There may be a few cemeteries that will bury a body just in a shroud. But it's not likely to be many: maybe some Islamic areas and in "Green" burials, where it's the fashion to go as "natural" as possible (either no coffin or a biodegradable one). And if Muslims and Greenies thought they were unpopular before, just wait until their dead bodies start crawling out of the earth and attacking people. The other cemeteries that could cause problems are paupers' fields and prison graveyards. My town now cremates the indigent, but I expect there are still places that bury them, and I doubt paupers' fields care about such niceties as grave liners. And I expect the same thing holds true for prison graveyards.
But all told that's going to be a very, very small number of potential zombies roaming around. And, under the circumstances, none of them is going to have vocal support groups protesting against shooting them in the head.
So that's what we'll be doing: shooting them in the head. I know the police around here. One of them recently opened up on a car full of unarmed people and a baby. They won't hesitate to fire on a zombie.
And the initial response would be by local law enforcement supported, in this and many other parts of the country, by the individual citizens who believe in gun ownership. Then the governors are going to mobilize the National Guard. And, finally, about the time the actual problem is winding down, the Federal government will get around to sending in the Army.
But the reality -- if I can use the term "reality" in describing this bit of speculative fantasy -- is that, thanks to our burial practices, here in the good old U S of A "The Great Zombie Apocalypse" would actually be "The (Not So) Great Zombie Apocalypse."
American Zombie Existence
1 Mary Roach, Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2003) p. 68.
Want to read something that's even more horrifying because it's true, then read "Seven Scary Things You Didn't Know about Your Pet's Food."