In small-town Texas, an affable mortician strikes up a friendship with a wealthy widow, though when she starts to become controlling, he goes to great lengths to separate himself from her grasp.
We meet Bernie Tiede (1958- ), a chubby undertaker, who takes pride in his work. He's a Gospel-singing tenor. In a series of interviews with townspeople, mixed with flashbacks, we follow Bernie: he arrives in Carthage, Texas (pop. 7,000), where old ladies adore him; he befriends a wealthy, mean-spirited widow named Marjorie Nugent; they become companions in both daily routines and expensive vacations. Among those interviewed, only her stockbroker and Danny Buck, the local district attorney, are unsympathetic toward the sunny, sometimes saccharine Bernie. Marjorie changes from sour and alone to happy with Bernie; then she gets possessive. What will sweet Bernie do?
In the tiny, rural town of Carthage, Texas, assistant funeral director Bernie Tiede was one of the town's most beloved residents. He taught Sunday school, sang in the church choir and was always willing to lend a helping hand. Everyone loved and appreciated Bernie, so it came as no surprise when he befriended Marjorie Nugent, an affluent widow who was as well known for her sour attitude as her fortune. Bernie frequently traveled with Marjorie and even managed her banking affairs. Marjorie quickly became fully dependent on Bernie and his generosity and Bernie struggled to meet her increasing demands. Bernie continued to handle her affairs, and the townspeople went months without seeing Marjorie.
- When the soft-spoken, chubby-cheeked Bernhardt Tiede II arrived for his first day of work as the assistant director of the Hawthorne Funeral Home in the little rural town of Carthage, Texas, no one was sure what to think. The towns barber called him "peachy and sweet." Some men who spent their afternoons swapping stories at Leon Choate's combination barber-and-gunsmith shop just off the town square openly speculated that he might be a little light in the loafers."
But it wasnt long before Bernie, who never had an unkind word to say about anyone, became one of Carthage's most beloved residents. His greatest attribute, however, was his ability to create beautiful funerals for Carthage's deceased. As one townsperson said, With Bernie doing your service, you just knew you were going to get to heaven.
One afternoon Bernie organized the funeral of Rod Nugent, a rich Carthage oilman and chairman of Carthage's bank. There, he met Marjorie Nugent, the town's domineering grande dame, despised by almost everyone in Carthage for her arrogance and rude behavior. Like he did with many of the town's widows, Bernie regularly visited Mrs. Nugent after the funeral. Soon, she began asking him to run errands for her, to take her to both lunch and dinner, and act as her escort on trips. Then, in August 1997, in a story that made headlines in newspapers around the country, Mrs. Nugent was found dead, shot four times in the back, and buried under some frozen foods in the large, rectangular freezer in her garage.
What made the story of Mrs. Nugent's murder so peculiar was that she had been dead for nine months before people noticed she wasn't around. (The truth was that no one really cared about looking for her because no one missed her, one resident said.) What made the story truly bizarre, however, was the announcement by police that Bernie not only had murdered Mrs. Nugent but had been using her money to give to people in need throughout Carthage. He even donated $100,000 in Mrs. Nugent's name to build a new Sunday school building at the Methodist church. Almost immediately after his arrest, even after he confessed to killing her, Carthage citizens rallied around Bernie, going so far as to drive around the courthouse blowing their horns, and begging District Attorney Davidson not to prosecute their favorite assistant funeral home director.