An 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.