I Will Remember You*

MemorialsAn interesting post from Cathy at Kittling: Books has got me thinking about Día de los Muertos, a memorial celebration that’s typically observed in Spain and in Latin American countries. It’s a time to remember loved ones who have died, and in lots of places it’s marked by parades, food, visits to cemeteries and the decoration of private family memorials. You’ll want to check out Cathy’s post to see some of the artwork and other observations.

Día de los Muertos isn’t celebrated in every culture. But many cultures do have some way of remembering loved ones who’ve died. And people often find personal ways to do so as well. They do in real life and they do in fiction too.

In Agatha Christie’s The Hollow (AKA Murder After Hours), we meet well-known sculptor Henrietta Savernake. One weekend she is invited to join one of her cousins Lady Lucy Angkatell and her husband Sir Henry at their country home. Henrietta is pleased about it because, among other things, she’ll get to spend some time with her lover John Christow, who’s also been invited. Christow is married, so they can’t be very public with their relationship, but everyone knows about it. On the Sunday afternoon, Christow is shot. Hercule Poirot has been invited for lunch that day and arrives just after the shooting. To him it looks like a macabre tableau arranged for his ‘benefit.’ He soon sees though that it is all too real, and works with Inspector Grange to find out who killed Christow and why. At the end of the novel, Henrietta has to deal with the grief she feels, and she wants some way to remember her lover, even though they weren’t officially a couple. Here is how she does so:

“I must take my grief and make it into a figure of alabaster.’
Exhibit No. 58. ‘Grief.’ Alabaster. Miss Henrietta Savernake…’


She may not be able to publicly put flowers on his grave, but she finds her own kind of memorial.

Lawrence Block’s New York PI Matthew Scudder has to deal with the fact that while he was a police officer, he killed a young girl Estrellita Rivera in a tragic accident. He was chasing some thieves who’d just shot the owner of a bar, and Estrellita was shot by mistake. Although her family never blamed him for what happened, Scudder feels the burden of it. Whenever he has the opportunity and is in a Roman Catholic church, he lights a candle for her. It’s his way of remembering her.

One of the older Roman Catholic traditions is that bones, piece of cloth and other things belonging to saints were to be revered. They were regarded as holy and used as memorials to the saint. This belief plays a major role in Ellis Peter’s A Morbid Taste For Bones, the first of her Brother Cadfael stories. Fans will know that Cadfael is a Benedictine monk in 12th Century Shrewsbury Abbey. In this novel, Cadfael travels with a group of monks to the Welsh village of Gwytherin to retrieve the bones of St. Winifred and take them back to the abbey. As you can imagine, the people who live in Gwytherin are unwilling to have a group of English monks take their prized memorial away. Among other things they regard St. Winifred as their protectress. So there’s already hostility between the monks and the townspeople. Then Lord Rhysart, who led the opposition to the monks, is killed. If the monks are to return to the abbey in safety, and with the bones, it will have to be proved that none of them is responsible. So Cadfael works to solve the murder.

Tarquin Hall’s Vishwas ‘Vish’ Puri has his own way of remembering those who have gone before. He visits temples, although he isn’t what you would call blindly religious. He also keeps a personal shrine in his Delhi office. Here’s how it’s described in The Case of the Man Who Died Laughing:

‘The first thing he did upon entering his office – that is, after turning on the air conditioning – was to light an incense stick in the little puja shrine below the two frames hanging on the wall next to his desk. One contained a photograph of his father, Om Chander Puri, the other a likeness of Chanakya, the detective’s guide and guru who had lived around 300 BC and founded the arts of espionage and investigation. The detective said a short prayer, asking for guidance from them both, and then buzzed in his secretary.’

Puri feels a connection not just with his own personal ancestors, but with those from the broader history of India as well.

Some people of course develop smaller ways to reflect on and remember those who’ve died. Karin Fossum’s Inspector Konrad Sejer, for instance, has a prized photograph of his wife Elise, who died of cancer. He doesn’t obsess over her loss, ‘though he misses her very much. But he keeps that ‘photo in place of pride. He remembers her often and sometimes reflects on what she might think or say about what he does.

In Qiu Xiaolong’s Enigma of China, Shanghai Police Bureau Chief Inspector Chen Cao investigates what seems to be the suicide of Zhou Keng, Head of Shanghai’s Housing Development Committee. The official explanation for his death is that he killed himself because he was under investigation for corruption. Chen is assigned to the case under the assumption that he’ll ‘rubber stamp’ that account of Zhou’s death. But Chen isn’t entirely satisfied with the ‘suicide story.’ So he begins to ask some questions and works to find out what really happened to the victim. In one plot thread of this novel, Chen gets an invitation/request from his assistant Detective Yu. Yu’s wife Pequin wants to remember her dead father on the hundredth anniversary of his birth. It’s the Buddhist tradition to have a celebration to mark that occasion, and when possible, the memorial takes place at a Buddhist temple. Normally, a Party cadre such as Chen wouldn’t attend a religious observance like that. However, it’s a request from his friend and assistant. What’s more, it’s a mark of pride for Yu and his wife to have such an important person as Chen attend the memorial. So Chen agrees. It’s an interesting look at Buddhist customs for remembering dead loved ones as they’re observed in China.

Of course, not all cultures have such memorials. In some cultures, for instance, those who have died are still considered to be a part of one’s life, so creating memorials simply isn’t a part of daily living. In others, memorials to those who have died are seen as possible openings for malevolent spirits. So once loved ones have died, they are not mentioned. That said though, in a lot of cultures and a lot of different ways, we do remember those we’ve loved who have died. These are a few examples. Over to you.

ps. The ‘photo is of a yahrzeit candle. In the Jewish tradition, these candles are lit at certain times of the year to remember family members who have died.

*NOTE: The title of this post is a the title of a Sarah McLachlan song.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Ellis Peters, Karin Fossum, Lawrence Block, Qiu Xiaolong, Tarquin Hall

18 responses to “I Will Remember You*

  1. tracybham

    Great post, Margot, and an interesting topic. Last year I planned to do a post on Dia de los Muertos in 2014, but it just slipped by me. Maybe I will remember next year. The community college here has an annual altar exhibit. Last year I got a book by Denise Hamilton called Sugar Skull, and it is set around this time of year, in L.A. I assume. I haven’t read it yet.

    • Tracy – Thanks for the kind words. If you get the chance to do a post for Día de Los Muertos next year, I’d be really interested in your take. I’ll bet that altar exhibit is something to see! I have to admit I haven’t read the Hamilton yet; if you do I’ll be eager to know what you think of it.

  2. Col

    I’m fairly sure I have read something that takes place when the Day of the Dead festival is happening, though I can’t recall what it was at the minute. Loved the Block series with Scudder.
    I’m off to see if I can remember the book, otherwise this will nag me all day!

  3. There are certainly plenty of character who are figuratively ‘haunted’ by the dead and memorials are a fine way to celebrate what we remember of our loved one. As we get older, hard not to see that looming ever larger in our lives after all. Ever read Spark’s MEMENTO MORI? Not exactly crime fiction, but close … Thanks Margot.

    • Sergio – Well, that’s true enough! As we get older, that prospect does get closer. I’ve not (yet) read Memento Mori, but now you’ve got me intrigued. I’ll have to see if I can seek it out.

  4. Kathy D.

    I remember a friend who had lost her mother when she was a child. I visited her apartment years ago and saw a shrine to her mother with a photograph in a nice frame, and lit candles and burning incense around it. She was a Buddhist.
    I like the Jewish tradition of burning candles during the year to remember loved ones. Friends do it. It’s worth doing.

    • Kathy – I think there are a lot of people who have those private memorials. It’s a way to remember those who have died and I think for a lot of people, it offers connection.

  5. Here in Labrador there are shrines along the road between our town, North West River, and Goose Bay. They mark where people have died in car accidents and they do make me wonder about our strange ways as humans. There will be a new one soon as a brother and sister (in their sixties) were killed on Halloween when they ran into the back of a tow truck. Sad. As a Buddhist and visual person I create shrines in my home all over – to my mother, father and even pets that have gone. I don’t need to be reminded in order to remember them, it is just comforting to make them. Thanks for all the food for thought.

    • Jan – I am very sorry to hear of those deaths. It’s so sad when things like that happen. And I’ve seen those kinds of roadway shrines that you mention. It’s interesting how people want to have those memorials. I’ve seen them too on other scenes of death. I think you put it really well to say that we can remember people and pets we love without memorial shrines. But they bring us comfort, help us sort it all out, and (I think anyway) help us connect with those we’ve loved.

  6. Margot: I live in a land of great spaces and wide open skies.

    I can appreciate the connection to the spirits of the Old Cheyenne on the high plains and in the mountains of Wyoming felt by Walt Longmire in The Cold Dish and other books in the series by Craig Johnson.

    One of the most vivid expressions of a connection to nature to someone gone I have read was in the letter of Major Sullivan Ballou to his wife, Sarah, before the first Battle of Bull Run in the American Civil War. I first heard the letter read on the Civil War series of Ken Burns. It closes:

    “But, O Sarah! If the dead can come back to this earth and flit unseen around those they loved, I shall always be near you; in the gladdest days and in the darkest nights . . . always, always, and if there be a soft breeze upon your cheek, it shall be my breath, as the cool air fans your throbbing temple, it shall be my spirit passing by. Sarah do not mourn me dead; think I am gone and wait for thee, for we shall meet again . . .”

    I get emotional every time I read or heard it with the haunting Ashokan Farewell in the background.

    • Bill – Oh, yes, indeed! That scene from The Civil War is absolutely haunting isn’t it? That one puts a lump in my throat and a shiver to my neck every time. Thank you for reminding me of it.
      I also have a sense of what you mean by the wide spaces and blue skies. I lived on the US prairie for a few years and felt that way. And once, I took my daughter and a friend to South Dakota to visit De Smet, the ‘little town on the prairie’ made immortal in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books. Driving through that part of South Dakota gives one that same sense of open space and big skies. It’s certainly enough to call to mind the Old Cheyenne that Johnson mentions in his Walt Longmire novels.

      • Margot: Before coming to Saskatchewan my grandfather had a homestead at Clark, South Dakota around an hour drive from De Smet. Small connections in our lives come in unexpected ways.

  7. One of my favourite straight (ie non-crime) novels is Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano, which takes place on the Day of the Dead, and has people eating chocolate skulls and chocolate skeletons…

  8. I always felt that Henritta’s way of mourning the death of her lover is one of the most powerful scenes Dame Christie’s written. Sums up her personality, sums up the entire book.
    In the Hindu religion, the dead are never too far away from the living. They don’t haunt you or anything, but on certain days in a year, they visit you, and they are always looking out for you. What Vish Puri does is fairly common- most offices in India will have a shrine such as his.
    Interesting to see how other cultures honour the dead. Thank you.

    • Natasha – I always thought Henrietta’s way of mourning John made for a very powerful scene too. As you say, it sums up her character and reveals her pain without being overly wordy.
      Thanks too for shedding some light on how people connect with dead loved ones in the Hindu religion. Puri’s connection with his own past and with India’s feels really authentic as I read it; it’s good to know that it is. And it sounds very comforting to think of loved ones as looking out for us.

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