People who die usually leave behind friends, colleagues and loved ones who need to go through the process of grieving. And for a lot of people, that process involves a funeral or memorial service. Many people find that a ritual service helps them accept the death and begin the difficult process of letting go. And each culture has its own way of letting go of those who’ve died. Since death is so much a part of crime fiction, it’s no surprise at all that we see many examples of funerals, memorial services and so on in the genre. There’s only space in this one post for a few examples, but I’m sure you can think of more than I could, anyway.
Agatha Christie’s After the Funeral (AKA Funerals Are Fatal) starts with the funeral of patriarch Richard Abernethie. As is the custom at that time and in that place, the family members gather at the Abernethie home Enderby after the service. Among the mourners is the family lawyer Mr. Entwhistle, who’s been through this before with other clients. He knows the ritual very well and at the expected time, he informs the family of the terms of Abernethie’s will. At this gathering, Abernethie’s younger sister Cora Lansquenet says that he was murdered. At first, everyone hushes her up and even she tells the group to pay no attention to her. But secretly everyone wonders whether she was right. When she herself is murdered the next day, it seems clear that she was. Mr. Entwhistle asks Hercule Poirot to look into the matter, and Poirot agrees. In the end he finds out the truth about both Abernethie’s death and that of his sister. It’s interesting to see how people’s beliefs about what is ‘the proper thing to do’ at funerals comes into play at the beginning of the novel even though Christie doesn’t depict the service itself.
In Arthur Upfield’s Death of a Swagman, Queensland Police Inspector Napoleon ‘Bony’ Bonaparte visits the small town of Merino to investigate the murder of stockman George Kendall, whose body was found in an isolated hut. He’s just arrived when one of the town’s most respected citizens Ted Bennett dies of a heart attack. Bony’s in the process of looking into the Kendall case when there’s another grisly discovery. Transient worker John Way’s body is found in the same hut, and it seems he committed suicide. Bony doesn’t think that’s true though, and certain aspects of the two deaths seem to connect them. It turns out that Bony’s right, and in the end he finds out what really happened to both men, and how it’s connected to the death of Ted Bennett. On the day of Bennett’s funeral, a storm threatens, and it’s interesting to see how everyone rushes to make sure all of the decencies are observed before the storm hits.
Burial customs play an important role in Tony Hillerman’s The Ghostway. In that novel, Navajo Tribal Police Sergeant Jim Chee investigates the disappearance of sixteen-year-old Margaret Billy Sosi, who went missing from the school she attends. Chee believes that this case is related to another case he’s investigating, the disappearance and later murder of Albert Gorman. Gorman was a Los Angeles Navajo who’d moved to the Reservation. Chee is right that there’s a connection, and the trail leads him to Los Angeles, where he finds out important things about Gorman’s history. He also finds out the truth about why Gorman’s been killed. At one point in the novel Chee goes to the home of one of Gorman’s kinsmen where he believes Gorman may have been hiding out. That’s when he discovers that Gorman’s dead. The body is prepared in the traditional Navajo way, but there are just a few things about that preparation that aren’t consistent with tradition. That’s what begins to put Chee on the right path. This novel also discusses Navajo beliefs about the dead and about rituals used by those who come in contact with the dead.
One of the story arcs in Gail Bowen’s Joanne Kilbourn series concerns the death of Kilbourn’s first husband Ian. He was a rising politician who was murdered one night when he stopped to help a young couple whose car wasn’t working. When he refused to take them to a party, the young man, Kevin Tarpley, murdered him. Tarpley was convicted and imprisoned for the crime. In A Colder Kind of Death, Tarpley is shot while he’s exercising in the prison yard. Then his wife Maureen, who was with him on the night of Ian Kilbourn’s murder, is also killed. Now suspicion falls on Kilbourn. It’s soon shown that she had nothing to do with the killings, but she still wants to deal with the grief that that this experience brings up. Part of the way she does that is by looking at old footage of her husband’s funeral. That process helps both her and her son Angus, who is also dealing with his father’s murder. It’s not vital to the case, but it’s interesting to see how each of them reacts to the footage, and what each remembers about the funeral.
Alan Orloff’s Diamonds For the Dead is the story of the death of Abe Handleman, who had a fatal fall down a flight of stairs. His son Josh returns to the family home in Northern Virginia to arrange his father’s funeral. That’s when he discovers that his father had a cache of very valuable diamonds – and they’re missing. What’s more, his father’s best friend Lev Yurishenko tells Josh that his father didn’t die accidentally, but was murdered. At first Josh doesn’t want to believe it, but the missing diamonds seem to support that theory. So he begins to ask some questions. He finds out that there was more to his father than he knew. He also finds out the truth about his father’s death. As a part of this novel, we see the traditional Jewish custom of burial as soon as possible after the death. We also see the custom of sitting shiva – a week-long period of mourning that’s observed in traditional Jewish homes.
Police sometimes attend funerals and memorial services of murder victims, particularly if they believe they can get some insight into who the killer might be. That’s what happens for instance in Jane Casey’s The Burning. DC Maeve Kerrigan and her colleagues at the Met are investigating a series of killings committed by a murderer who tries to destroy his victims’ bodies by fire. When the body of Rebecca Haworth is discovered, it looks at first as though she may be the so-called Burning Man’s latest victim. But little pieces of evidence suggest otherwise. Partly to follow up on that possibility, Kerrigan is asked to focus on the Haworth case. She attends Haworth’s funeral and in one moving scene, she gets the chance to speak to the victim’s parents. She knows it’s the worst possible time to ask them any questions, but she also wants to solve the case as quickly as possible. In the end, something she sees at the funeral gathering helps Kerrigan to put some of the pieces together.
Funeral and memorial rites often help people let go and we see that in Timothy Hallinan’s A Nail Through the Heart. American ex-pat Philip ‘Poke’ Rafferty is a Bangkok-based travel writer who has a reputation for being able to find people and solve problems. So Australian Clarissa Ulrich seeks him out when she goes in search of her Uncle Claus. The two were close when she was growing up, but she hasn’t heard from him and she’s worried for him. Rafferty agrees to ask questions and is soon drawn into an ugly case of murder, awful hidden secrets and more. One murder in particular hits Rafferty very hard. His wife Rose, who’s a former bar girl, and his foster daughter Miaow, who’s a former street child, both understand that this is tearing Rafferty apart, and will only get worse. They are also products of the Thai culture, and have a set of culturally-based beliefs about death and about letting go. With their help, Rafferty goes through a particular ritual, and it’s clear that it has a cleansing effect on him.
We see a similar effect in Angela Savage’s Behind the Night Bazaar. PI Jayne Keeney is an ex-pat Australian who lives and works in Bangkok. She goes north to Chiang Mai to visit her friend Didier ‘Didi’ de Montpasse. During her visit, Didi’s partner Nou is murdered. The official police theory is that Didi is responsible and one night he is killed in what police say was an incident of violently resisting arrest. Keeney doesn’t believe that though. She thinks the police are covering up the real reason for both killings and she begins to ask questions. Her search leads her to the Thai sex trade, human trafficking and corruption. In the end she finds out the truth about these deaths and she’s able to officially have her friend’s name cleared. At the very end of the book, she finds her own way to ritually let go of Didi in a poignant memorial scene.
Funerals and memorial services are woven into crime fiction partly because in real life, they often help people start the healing process. Of course they can also be useful for detectives. And that’s not to mention the many times that funerals are used to cover up illegal activities (there’s an interesting case of that in Geoffrey McGeachin’s Blackwattle Creek). They are deeply rooted in our various cultures. I’ve only had space for a few instances from the genre. Your turn.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Eric Clapton and Will Jennings’ Tears in Heaven.