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The setting I'm working on is in terms of tech levels and society best comparable to early 20th century Earth. But with several big differences. One being the existence necromancy and mad science that is used to turn human corpses into undead laborers.

It generally speaking isn't in dispute that the Undead are just biological automata.

Once they're out of the morgue they can more or less work a plantation or assembly line all day, and stop only to rest and eat nutrient slop without ever so much as a grunt of discontent.

They're also fairly invaluable as a result. As the undead automate a lot of menial and tedious labor that most people don't want to deal with, while also allowing for a level of extra wealth to be passed around.

However their existence does raise certain dilemmas.

In real life a high mortality rate is a drain on the economy. People can't be workers if they're dead

But here, a higher death toll in this world means more compliant and obedient undead laborers and their economic benefits.

For example I can easily see nations not seeing a higher mortality rate as a bad thing since that creates a surplus of menial labor for their economy. I can also see governments being more liberal with their use of the death penalty for such purposes.

Or scandals like hospitals getting paid under the table to set up a corpse to workforce pipeline.

What kind of policies and reforms could be advocated for that would allow for an ethical use of undead labor without the perverse incentives that would demand the creation of more dead human bodies?

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    $\begingroup$ @Tortliena I should clarify that the zombies being used are more biological than magical. Skeletons can't be reanimated, and the brain and body needs to be in reasonable good shape for it to work. The zombies also have a limited lifespan and do require maintenance overtime. Though you've brought up a good point about thinking about their lifespan. $\endgroup$ May 30, 2023 at 23:19
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    $\begingroup$ Is it opt in or opt out, or do you not get a choice? $\endgroup$
    – John
    May 30, 2023 at 23:45
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    $\begingroup$ @Nolonar They're saying that in real life people can't be workers if they're dead. $\endgroup$
    – Idran
    May 31, 2023 at 13:07
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    $\begingroup$ If someone dies of old age, then can they still be labourers? Or do they have to have been killed while at a high level of physical fitness. Because if they can, I don't see the advantage of killing people to create labourers... The world already has a 100% death toll... $\endgroup$
    – komodosp
    May 31, 2023 at 14:18
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    $\begingroup$ How does a government that [has a for-profit prison system] avoid perverse incentives? is a contradiction of terms. $\endgroup$
    – Mazura
    May 31, 2023 at 21:05

17 Answers 17

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Legislation mandating the undead opt-in before death.

It's like an organ donor card on steroids. Make it illegal to use the bodies unless people signed legal documentation allowing their bodies to be used prior to their deaths. Require employers keep this documentation on hand for tax purposes. It should provide traceability back to the living person with a notorized signature attesting to sound mind and lack of coercion.

Balance this by requiring relatives or close friends to also sign documents, and give copies to everyone. Supplement with severe enough punishments to deter all but the most unsavory characters.

Of course you don't want a bureaucracy to hold up employment of the undead, so don't make it too complicated for your story. Just put in enough believable documentation. Model it after organ donation, so this whole process is easier to believe being based on something real.

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    $\begingroup$ The organ donation comparison may not work in some places - the UK, for example, has just switched to an opt-out system instead of opt-in. $\endgroup$ May 31, 2023 at 16:13
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    $\begingroup$ @Pilchard123, so each place does it a little different. The point is organ donation is a concept in many parts of the world, so whether you opt-in or out is a matter of process. The reader should be somewhat familiar with it. $\endgroup$ May 31, 2023 at 22:44
  • $\begingroup$ I think you'd need something to explain why governments would want this. Sounds like Working Time Directive would be closer than donor cards. $\endgroup$
    – Jontia
    Jun 1, 2023 at 14:04
  • $\begingroup$ @Jontia: looking back at this answer a day later, I agree. This answer lacks incentive. I actually posted another answer on this question which might provide that incentive while also addressing conflicts of interest that might result in murder mills funneling dead bodies into factories. $\endgroup$ Jun 1, 2023 at 14:47
  • $\begingroup$ But then with an opt-out system, all you have to do is lose the documentation, or question the authenticity of it. It would be trivial for a corrupt government to circumvent. $\endgroup$ Jun 14, 2023 at 7:00
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The Labor of the Dead is the Inheritance of the Living

The profit (or at least the majority of it) from the bodies goes to the surviving relatives. This of course leads to a certain amount of inimical nepotism (my brother is worth more to me dead) but at least the extra deaths happen on much smaller scales than if the governing body was primarily responsible for welfare...

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    $\begingroup$ This feels like an upside down pyramid scheme. Kill your ancestors, and live off their labor! What could possibly go wrong? $\endgroup$ May 31, 2023 at 23:36
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    $\begingroup$ Even if true, I can't see how this wouldn't just lead to companies buying said labor rights like they buy copyrights and such. "Hey, sure you could be earning \$3 a day from your meemaw's corpse, but we'll pay you \$1000 right now to buy her labor in perpetuity!" $\endgroup$ Jun 1, 2023 at 14:56
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    $\begingroup$ @Shufflepants because such contracts are illegal, simple as that $\endgroup$
    – Hobbamok
    Jun 2, 2023 at 7:45
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    $\begingroup$ @GregBurghardt: But OP notes that a given corpse has a limited use and time of viability (in a comment). So it's more "Kill your ancestors, and get a small payout", not wholly unlike life insurance today (only funded by corpse labor, rather than premium payments). $\endgroup$
    – sharur
    Jun 2, 2023 at 20:26
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The Zombies degrade over time

Making zombies capable of performing complex set of movement is not only just tedious and complicated, it also carries a set of drawbacks. First, each zombie consumes some sort of energy for its mere existence, and while its supply is vast, it can be drained out, making zombies either slower or malfunctioning if not supplied with "necromantic power". Second, a zombie is a dead thing, or "once dead", and whatever decay processes a dead body undegoes normally are only slowed in a dead body and not completely stopped. Or stopped, but since a dead body is not repairing itself (otherwise it'll be a living body!), a zombie gets damaged over its afterlife by normal wear and tear, eventually becoming damaged beyond use.

Next, the ability to herd zombies might also be limited, both by abundance of living zombie controllers and by the zombies' stubbornness that grows over time as they lose bits of their brains to various sources of damage. Say you can tell a zombie to "dig", and it will dig, but should the zombie's shovel break, it would swing its arms in a digging manner not noticing it had lost its instrument. Or worse, it would start digging with its arms, damaging them in the process. Should the overseer not notice a problem with one of his zombies in time, that zombie's usefulness would be permanently lowered.

In short, you need to limit your zombies' afterlife-time or functionality to create the need to replace them over time faster than the living people could repopulate. This would naturally limit their availability and usefulness, preventing abuse of your "perverse incentives", they would not launch en masse, or the government that would first attempt to convert their populace to zombies would fall apart to labor crisis after a while.

PS: your zombies as you depict them are better than living people, they look like they can perform decently complex daily motion set, they can control themselves which "normal" fantasy zombies cannot, they know what to eat and not go at people roaring "brainnnns", and they don't object to what they are ordered to do. This is your main problem, your enterprise management would prefer dead over living. Since you can't make the living better, you need to make the dead worse.

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  • $\begingroup$ Another problem - while decaying they probably stink. That's maybe okay for manual labor in places where there are no living people with working noses. But if they get anywhere near populated areas, the stench would be unbearable. $\endgroup$ Jun 1, 2023 at 18:04
  • $\begingroup$ @DarrelHoffman this depends on what methods are used to prepare/maintain the corpse, it's quite possible that the corpse is embalmed so it does not stink. Yet, as a matter of making undead worse, it could help. $\endgroup$
    – Vesper
    Jun 1, 2023 at 18:21
  • $\begingroup$ I'm not sure an embalmed corpse would be suitable for reanimation. That's fine for making a body look presentable at an open-casket funeral, but I expect it would not be very conducive to post-mortem labor. $\endgroup$ Jun 1, 2023 at 19:16
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    $\begingroup$ @DarrelHoffman last time I practiced necromancy, embalming was not an obstacle to subsequent reanimation. Your experience might vary. $\endgroup$
    – Vesper
    Jun 2, 2023 at 4:05
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You don't go into detail about it, but...

Your culture embraces using their dead as golems robots slaves convenient inexpensive labor, so they won't complain when they're destroyed

While it's always true that the law is slow to catch up to any (*ahem*) innovation, it will eventually. Legal disputes about unfair trade practices,1 untraceable murders,2 ownership,3 corporate accountability,4 and activism5 will lead to the inevitably complex set of regulations and rules that govern how zombies are used (from creation to disposal). I suggest using the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as a model for structure, regulation, policy, and implementation.

So, with death meaning so little to people, the law will focus on one thing: cremation manages the workforce.

  • So-called "civil" violations (e.g., unfair trade practices) lead to the cremation of the zombies.

  • So-called "criminal" violations (e.g., a warden padding his pockets by setting up a prisoner-to-zombie pipeline) lead to the cremation of the perpetrator. Which means that any contracts the perp may have made for "after-life services" are null-and-void. (If you're thinking, "wow, something like burning down my house would really screw up my reverse mortgage!" you're understanding the value of this threat.)

You don't just lose your life, you lose your future.

And if you really want to take this to the next level, consider using the U.S. Federal Reserve Bank as a model for an organization that controls zombies to control the economy in the same way The Fed controls interest rates. In other words, nobody owns zombies... they rent them from the government. And when the economy gets too hot, the government cremates enough zombies to cool it off. If you're looking for Social Commentary to underscore your story, the use of zombies to express the ineffectiveness vs. the necessity of the Federal Reserve System would work really well... and it would be both horrifying and hilarious at the same time.


1"You have more zombies than I do and that's unfair!"

2"Chief, this dude's got no fingers... how do I check for prints?" ... "I dunno. This was all so much easier when I was your age. Back then we only had to deal with gangs and political assassinations. Committing a crime meant something back then! Yesiree! When you hauled a perp in and slammed him against a desk, he'd look you in the eye and you knew, you knew! that he was only angry 'cause he got caught! Not like these zombies nowadays. Don't care if they're caught or not. Just stand there in jail, doin' a whole lotta nothin' but decomposing."

3"That's my grandma we're talkin' about! Why can that guy own her and not me! She's family! Was family... You know what I mean!"

4"Sir, a crane fell yesterday and some seventy of our zombies were destroyed." ... "Hmmm? Wha'd you... oh... well, let accounting know and... what's this about a new government policy about hazmat cleanup and a tainting the aquifer! That's outrageous! How is a company supposed to make any money???"

5"My old man! He got rights! 'cause he 'dead don't mean no slight! Pay his wage to me and mine or we'll show you a fine!"

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  • $\begingroup$ Haha can't resist, the USA would have 6 trillion new zombies being added each year. $\endgroup$
    – user86462
    May 31, 2023 at 1:04
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    $\begingroup$ @AncientGiantPottedPlant Actually... That's a great point! If the government ever needed to speed the economy up (like get it out of a recession), they would... Um... assist welfare recipients to contribute in a more meaningful manner. Talk about the fundamental government cover-up! Soylent green, anyone? $\endgroup$
    – JBH
    May 31, 2023 at 1:35
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    $\begingroup$ This Soylent Green processes itself! $\endgroup$
    – user86462
    May 31, 2023 at 7:07
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    $\begingroup$ To steal from Reaper Man - "Undead yes, unperson no!" $\endgroup$ May 31, 2023 at 16:17
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You would not be able to avoid perverse incentives in this system, but it would be self-limiting. (Mind you, it would be self-limiting in a terrible way.)

The undead as you describe them are effectively machines running on nutrient slop, which is the crucial bit because its production requires nutritional inputs. It will therefore compete with food production and make food more expensive for humans. This makes them fundamentally different from real-world machines, which run on fossil fuels that humans don't eat. Since humans would give up most everything else before they give up food, the more undead you have, the worse is your economy doing: people spend ever more money on basic foodstuffs and as a result, ever less on all other things, including those produced in the undead-staffed factories.

In the realities of early 20th century, the European great powers would probably try to "solve" this problem by forcibly extracting food from their respective colonies, creating brutal famines in the process. But this would create its own problem: colonialism is all about getting cheap resources from faraway lands, processing them at home, and selling the resulting goods back to those faraway lands at a profit. Starving your customers collapses this economical model too, but cannot be avoided because, after all, undead labor is cheaper: if you don't do it, the other colonial powers will, and will outcompete your producers in the world market as a result, making things even worse for your own population.

Both of those mechanisms would, after a death toll likely running into the hundreds of millions in the colonies, eventually collapse all the imperial economies to the point of making factory production unprofitable, which in turn will reduce the demand for undead labor. I wouldn't expect industry to survive even in the imperial homelands; they will revert to subsistence agriculture like everyone else.

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    $\begingroup$ Counterpoint: undead may be useful farm workers, producing more food than they consume. After all, farms were very labor intensive prior to mechanization, and undeads are just that, mechanization... $\endgroup$ May 31, 2023 at 9:05
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    $\begingroup$ @MatthieuM. , thank you. Mechanisation doesn't actually improve yields by as much as we may think; it less than doubles them. This sounds like a lot, but the undead laborers would consume much if not most of the additional yield gained. What did increase yields dramatically were petroleum-based fertilisers, but these are still some decades away in the context of the original question. $\endgroup$
    – ihaveideas
    May 31, 2023 at 13:27
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    $\begingroup$ That's a good point, depending on how much the undead consume compared to a regular human. The human brain consumes about 20% of the energy intake so if the zombies don't use it much, that would fall, and they wouldn't do non-essential activities, but I am not even sure they'd go as low as even 50% of regular energy intake. $\endgroup$ May 31, 2023 at 13:59
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    $\begingroup$ @MatthieuM. , thank you. Mind you, agricultural work is labour-intensive, meaning that undead or not, you require a lot of energy to perform it. And the same can be said for undead performing tasks done by machines in reality. They would have to eat a lot even if no thought ever entered their brains. $\endgroup$
    – ihaveideas
    May 31, 2023 at 14:35
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    $\begingroup$ Indeed, the more I think about it and the more I agree that you've one very important limitation to replacing machines by zombies. Beyond production, there's also logistics at play: transporting electricity is very easy in comparison to transporting food (even slop). This makes machines more attractive than zombies. $\endgroup$ May 31, 2023 at 15:09
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You don't necessarily need to do much

There are three factors at play here :

First, markets are all about balance between consumers and producers. As you told, your zombies only need the basic needs, meaning they will consume less. You need living beings at one point to have enough consumers so that you can still earn from having more products to sell. In other words, no one will have the use of 5 or 10 cars1, even at the price of one, so here's a economical limit.

Then, it looks like your undead are only capable of basic work. This will severely limit their use to give more complex products and services. Yes, it's kinda nice to have a semi-conscious worker for pennies, but it makes them relatively similar to today's automated machines. Pardon me the use of these words, but they'll still need "maintenance" like machines, without the advantage of an actual worker who can think and adapt.

Speaking of being akin to a machine, unless your culture is widely different from 20th and 21th's century, toying with corpses is something few enjoy. Worse, it's very unlikely you'll easily agree your boyfriend, father or mother is used by someone till death. Why? Well, first, it's likely a cultural concept coming from before zombies were invented. Then and most importantly, it's tied deeply in our construction as social, living beings : relationships are forged slowly but last through time2. In our world, people come by their relative tombstones even years and years after, and would be horrified if they learned the corpse was removed even to be used as compost. This principle is really not easily destroyed. To sum up, it will be hard to convince the majority it's morally OK to give away their relatives, even when knowing the benefits.

Ensuring it with laws

That being said, let's give people some tools to protect this cultural identity. After all, there are people who have little to no morale compass who need to be regulated. Like frauds, the solution will most likely come from laws and governemental services specialized in this topic.

First the law, give the right of the body to the family, exactly like property inheritance3. To give more control to the future zombie, you can also -and even- give the right to refuse any necromancy on your own body, exactly like you can allow or disallow the use of your corpse as a science subject, organ donor or any equivalent in most countries in the real world.

To ensure the law is followed, you'll need specific authorities. It's not technically possible to prevent any sort of corruption, but if you create complementary authorities, and prepare enough administrative laws this should limit the risk. It will be akin to occupational medicine nowadays, minus every zombie will have an appointed legal guardian to speak in their name.


1 : Without needing much market knowledge, The Asterix & Obelix "Obelix and Co." comic book is a good -and parodic- showcase of why having too much products vs not enough consumers is bad economically. Read it if you can, it's quite fun :).
2 : An excellent example of lasting relationship lies in the Hachikô : Until the end of his life, this dog waited for his master at the railway station.
3 : Of course, don't give the body's rights to someone if they killed the recently deceased. You should not be rewarded for your crimes.

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Have activist groups with lots of influence.

In real life, shooting people is much cheaper than life in prison, but executing people is often even more expensive than life in prison. This is because activists campaign against anyone being executed and extend the process a lot.

Have this be true in your world as well. The government sponsors and supports activist groups which have a lot of legal power to delay undead. If anyone makes a bunch of corpses in a suspicious way then those corpses will be kept in storage at public expense for a long time.

So, undead are only cheap when gained ethically. Unethically gained corpses may be a net loss as they sit in a storage locker waiting for the court battles to finish.

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  • $\begingroup$ How do you get out of a for-profit prison system? You tie it up in red tape, +1, using money. If you don't have any of that, guilty or not, then you're exactly where high society wants you. Of the lawyers, by the lawyers, and for the lawyers. $\endgroup$
    – Mazura
    May 31, 2023 at 21:01
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A death certificate is your work permit

An undead zombie must present a valid death certificate in order to be legally used as labor. That certificate lists things like cause of death and whether that body is licensed for labor use. Using unlicensed undead labor is a serious offense that will result in you losing your business, plus ensures that your corpse will eventually spend eternity toiling away in the worst, most grueling jobs available. Bodies that are not licensed for work will have the major ligaments in their arms, hands, and legs severed so that even if someone tried to reanimate them, the body wouldn't be usable at the mechanical level.

Deaths resulting from criminal activity or suspicious circumstances are automatically refused work licenses, so no killing people to boost your workforce. The cause of death is documented in detail, so any potential employer (is that even the right word any more?) knows exactly what the limitations of the body are. Deaths caused by injury are likely to leave the body damaged and unable to work completely, so a shady employer can't skimp on the workplace safety practices to kill off employees and then work them for free after they're dead. The type of zombie valuable for work purposes is the kind that died naturally and peacefully. Killing people to expand your undead workforce ultimately isn't practical because the zombie doesn't have the same capabilities as the living worker. They're cheaper, but don't generate anywhere near the same economic output. The only way they make economic sense is if you're repurposing something that would normally go to waste (the natural dead).

Your fears about the benefits of a high mortality rate are mostly unfounded. Unlike living workers, the undead don't retire, relocate, or need replacement. They're mindless, so the types of work they can do is limited. Together this means that you'll relatively quickly reach a point where all the work that could be done by the undead is being done by the undead. The demand saturates and excess deaths at that point aren't worth very much. Not to mention, a job that can be done by the mindless undead is a prime candidate for being automated out of existence as technology advances. Even though the undead are almost free, large portions of them will end up destroyed and replaced with machines that are much faster and more capable, precise, and consistent. Anyone still relying on undead labor will lose out to those that have mechanized. Undead labor will grow obsolete even faster than regular manual labor.

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2 Reasons: It's dangerous and expensive.

The first relates to the fact that necromancy is an unstable and potentially 'infectious' form of magic that unless 'bound' properly monitored lest it spontaneously expand outwards to engulf any life force it comes into contact with. So yes, you can revive the dead to perform tasks but having done so you' also have to check and monitor the undead closely because if the spell and those enchanted by it are not properly controlled over time it can start to leach the life essence out of any living being nearby and spread. So a bit like uranium while it has useful purposes necromancy is a form of magic that needs to be handled carefully as there can be serious risks if something goes wrong. And the potential threat of a Zombie apocalypse is not something even dictatorial governments take lightly.

The second issue (Cost) derives directly from the first. Yes, you can use undead labor for specific (highly dangerous but valuable ) purposes like working in toxic or dangerous environments that are too risky for humans beings but these tasks tend to be only niche industries because of the expensive magical and physical safeguards needed to enure your labor force doesn't contaminate the general population.

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  • $\begingroup$ This is what I was going to add as an answer. One must not consider the raised undead to be people, but more like machines, in need of maintenance by engineers of some sort. Highly educated, so not everyone can be one. Rational self-interest indicates if you kill too many people to make your workforce then you won't have enough to maintain them. Feedback from the world's rules is better than laws, which could be irrelevant the criminal world anyway. $\endgroup$ Jun 1, 2023 at 17:56
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The limitations of their capabilities restrict their economic viability and therefore their abuse

Let's first compare to the other famous example of 'free' labor that was historically used - Slavery. Slavery did generate a lot of Wealth, it is true - however you can make an argument that the super-power of the Era (England) did not get wealthy off the back of Slavery (Slavery wasn't practiced widespread within England well before the Atlantic Slave Trade).

Slavery - although predominantly used for hard/boring/dangerous labour, still had a thinking human who was capable of problem solving to a degree. This 'unskilled' element placed a cap on the types of jobs/roles that Slaves could do. Although I do believe that there were skilled Slaves who were able to 'negotiate' better working conditions for themselves on account of the additional value that their skills brought.

The point being - A Slave has more mental capability than a Zombie, but it was rare that a Slave would have a skilled profession. Skilled professions generally needing Education and high intelligence.

(Note - not trying to call Slaves idiots - just saying that in order to be say a Lawyer or Doctor, you need to be smarter than the average person - and that was rare among slaves.)

So, you have a Zombie that can do basic repetitive tasks, but not a whole lot else. They don't have anywhere near the same mental capabilities of even the most basic Slave.

This means that they are locked out of doing most work tasks, all except the most monotonous and simple of things (which generally don't generate a lot of profit)

Let's use an example of picking up litter from the Street. It has little to no Dollar value, it provides limited financial benefit and isn't worth paying someone to do it.

But, with an undead worker, shambling along picking up litter, it does make the place look a bit nicer and so it's a good task for a Zombie to do.

It's that limited financial benefit for all but the simplest of repetitive tasks that mean that there isn't a great fortune to be made in having a large Zombie workforce - this means there isn't a significant financial incentive to 'make' Zombies - the Society just uses them to fill those jobs that don't provide any monetary benefit, but would still be nice to do.

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    $\begingroup$ Despite your disclaimers, I'm really wincing as I read comments about slaves lacking the necessary intelligence, especially in an era where there was less formal education and more on-the-job training. I suggest that you may wish to edit to focus on autonomy - slave owners could not risk letting the slaves have the autonomy that was necessary to undertaking more skilled work. $\endgroup$ May 31, 2023 at 0:01
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    $\begingroup$ Agreeing with @KerrAvon2055; It's both an issue of preventing access to autonomy, prestige and general knowledge (leading to the two first points). It's not really about cleverness. $\endgroup$ May 31, 2023 at 0:07
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    $\begingroup$ You are mistaking intelligence for education, and focusing perhaps too much on the US. In Ancient Rome, there were high-status slaves. Some of the slaves rose up to manage entire estates, for example! There's no shortage of intelligence/potential in slaves, just a shortage of opportunity in terms of access to education and skilled jobs. $\endgroup$ May 31, 2023 at 9:03
  • $\begingroup$ "example of picking up litter from the Street. It has little to no Dollar value, it provides limited financial benefit and isn't worth paying someone to do it." My first thought was, damn, what sort of nasty town do you live in. More seriously, as the question stipulates "society best comparable to early 20th century Earth", I'm wondering if back then they didn't either have no sweepers in poor places and lots of them in richer places where you didn't want to be stepping in horse droppings all the time? More generally, which tasks are only worth Zombies in setting might need author research. $\endgroup$ May 31, 2023 at 15:09
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Memory Checks

Zombies must have an intact enough brain to perform a necromantic memory check. Insert whatever magical means you see fit for preservation of the hippocampus. Government inspectors will occasionally perform unannounced inspections on a random sample of the zombie workforce. If any are found to have memories of ending up as an undead worker in an illegal fashion, the government imposes steep fines on the company. Perhaps some other process/fine is in place if their memories cannot be studied.

This works two fold. It forces the companies to self regulate their channels of zombie acquisition to avoid fines. Additionally individuals know they risk being caught if they're supplying bodies by unsavory means because there is now traceability.

It also opens up potential plot elements such as shady companies that don't comply or otherwise circumvent this process. I could even see something like a routine memory check revealing information important to the story or being the basis for some subplot. If nothing else you could appeal to the pathos of the reader by telling some backstory of a particular undead drudge.

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I don't often post more than one answer, but this idea might be worth it, and it is too different from my first answer.


You get a discount on the funeral if the body is sold as a zombie worker.

These zombie workers become an alternate revenue source for funeral homes. Whether burying or cremating, we need to dispose of dead bodies. Even today, burial or cremation costs money. If the bodies are zombified, then you don't need to pay for the disposal. Better yet, the funeral home would sell the bodies for a reduced funeral rate.

This disincentivizes murder, because only funeral homes are allowed by law to do this. In order to sell a zombie worker, you need to lose a loved one and pay (a reduced rate) for a funeral.

Nobody but the funeral home has a positive financial incentive. Living relatives still pay money, just not as much. No sense in killing that annoying uncle, because it will still cost you money. It's cheaper to just not invite him to family gatherings.

Prison's won't make money either, because the family still pays for the funeral. The prison gets nothing (but an empty cell).

Criminal gangs won't go around killing people, because murder is still illegal, and they would need to be a registered funeral practitioner before they can sell bodies.

Documentation signed by living relatives at the funeral home would need to be sent to the government. Employers would need permits to use the undead, which could be tied back to the funeral home paperwork and death certificates. The government would need to audit employers periodically, of course. Punish those who do not abide by the law severely.

Nothing kills the incentive to murder like boring paperwork and discounts on things nobody really wants to buy. And nobody really wants to buy funeral ceremonies.

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Cremation

It's a fundamental right in your society to be cremated, thus destroying your skeleton. If the government wants your skeleton, it can pay for it. Otherwise, it won't get it. If a family is brassed off at the king, they will cremate out of spite.

Your society has a lot of bakers, potters, brickmakers, smiths, etc - all trades with kilns, which have been well used in days gone by to defy greedy rulers.

There's also a large number of lightly used sledgehammers, picks, log splitting axes, etc.

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Option 1: Don't bother, let Malthus deal with it.

Malthus was the famously gloomy Victorian economist who forecasted perpetual 'never hunger, never prosper'.

If Britain got wealthier, it'd have more children, and thus get poorer again. He got a bit unlucky; around the time he forecast it, it (arguably) ceased after 1300 years of being true, and failed badly for the next 200.

In Boneland, it's the reverse: Sooner hunger, sooner prosper. If a plague comes, or a genocide, the next generation will have loads of food and luxurious beds, and act accordingly. Soon, a new population, born of those who were good at not dying, will come about.

All that's required is that the government is somewhat limited so that the 10 year depression isn't worth the boom at the end. Term limits would do it. As would private ownership of corpses.

Option 2: The only taxes are poll taxes and sales taxes

The government covers or subsidises the cost of skeletons, and its only tax is a per head poll tax. End result: they want to keep the living alive. Reinforce by only allowing the living to do work at the palace / bureaus.

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Then what are we fighting for?

Sure, the dead are fantastic laborers. That means if everyone dies, you get more cheap/free labor. But if everyone is dead, who's left to avail of that labor? Who is left to consume the products of it? There are two facets to this: of course the entity controlling the labor needs living people to reap the benefits of the labor. But I think even the greediest, most corrupt (capitalist/government/whatever) understands at a base level that any given thing is only worth doing if there is an extant humanity. Incentivizing death is a logical fallacy.

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  • $\begingroup$ The entity in charge being humans who don't need a lot of other human is sufficient to get around your extant humanity criteria while being meaningless to the every other formerly alive human. $\endgroup$
    – DKNguyen
    Jun 1, 2023 at 0:59
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Use it as punishment

People don't want to see dear old grandma clearing out storm drains the day after her funeral, or ever, really. Make it so that the reanimation process is a "super death penalty", which would fall in line with the various methods of government sanctioned corpse desecration developed over the years: drawing and quartering, gibbeting, public dissection, etc. This of course brings up the incentive to falsely convict or over-sentence people to a new lifetime of servitude but that's a still-thorny-but-tractable criminal justice reform problem.

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  • $\begingroup$ That sounds like a prime opportunity for a feature-disguising uniform for the undead. Some kind of heavy boilersuit and face-concealing headgear. After all, nobody wants to see the undead. They're still animate corpses, whatever the advantages there'll always be the ick-factor. $\endgroup$
    – Ruadhan
    May 31, 2023 at 7:38
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Since your zombies need a functional body (as opposed to reanimated skeletons), and their immune systems and other life support fizzled out with death, they tend to rot away. Perhaps embalming, soaking with alcohol, etc. can slow down that process (and perhaps it would make them too stiff to actually move, like beef jerky, limiting the choices and/or useful timespan) - but sooner or later these walking machines just break down. Maybe some months, maybe more - but it is not like the planet is getting populated by the never-dying undead as more and more generations are added to the workforce.

They would also not be nice to be around as they rot, the smell and other sanitary considerations limiting what they can be used for, compared to healthy live workers - maybe initially, maybe eventually (do you want a house built with that smell? do you want apples picked with dilapidating goo hands?)

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