My husband suggested I might like to see the new Pixar movie, Coco. Since we don’t go to many movies I wondered why he thought I would like Coco. After he mentioned that the film addressed the theme of death and the afterlife I was intrigued. We went to see it a few days ago and I’ve been reflecting on it since. A culturally sensitive and family-friendly animated film set in Mexico; Coco is centered on death, the importance of family and the legacy we leave behind. Coco takes place during the Day of the Dead when according to Mexican tradition, or as interpreted by the film writers, those who have passed over to the other side are allowed to cross back over to the land of the living so long as someone from the living world remembers them. Miguel, a young boy from the charming Mexican village of Santa Cecilia, crosses a bridge made of marigold petals and slips into the underworld on Dia de los Muertos. Coco is the name of Miguel’s great-grandmother, who turns out to be the heart of the story. This is not a scary movie. The afterlife is portrayed as colorful and primarily cheerful where decorative skeletons take part in fiestas and alebrijes or spirit animals spread their wings and fly.
I enjoyed everything about this film, but what touched me most of all was when Miguel came to understand the importance of family, including generations past, and the gift of remembering those who have gone before us. Miguel forges a bond with his deceased ancestors in the afterlife where he learns that if a dead person is forgotten by everyone alive, they die for a second time, and nobody knows where those spirits end up. Coco packs an emotional wallop and I was moved to tears as the young boy, back in the living world, tries to help silent Mama Coco recall the father who loved her. Miguel wants more than anything to help keep the memory of the dead alive.
This beautiful film caused me to reflect on our current traditions surrounding death. In Ireland, where I was born and raised, and here in the USA, we have a funeral for the deceased, and a burial or a cremation, or some memorial immediately following the person’s death. However, after that we don’t celebrate those who have gone before us, at least not to the extent that people do for Dia de los Muertos. In Ireland we have memorial masses once a year, if a family chooses to do this in honor of the deceased. My father requests this every year for my mother, and her name is in the local mass bulletin around the anniversary of her passing. This is meaningful and important. We want our loved ones to be remembered. But there is something beautiful and celebratory about a multi-day holiday which focuses on gatherings of family and friends to pray for and remember friends and family members who have died. The intent of Dia de los Muertos is to help support their spiritual journey and encourage visits by the souls.
Assured that the dead would be insulted by mourning or sadness, Dia de los Muertos celebrates the lives of the deceased with food, drink, parties, and activities the dead enjoyed in life. Dia de los Muertos recognizes death as a natural part of the human experience, a continuum with birth, childhood, and growing up to become a contributing member of the community. On Dia de los Muertos, the dead are also a part of the community, awakened from their eternal sleep to share celebrations with their loved ones. (National Geographic)
I love this idea. The dead are honored with ofrendas-small, private altars honoring each person. Ofrendas often have flowers, candles, the favorite foods and beverages of the departed, photos, and personal mementos of the person being remembered.
In Ojai with Hope Edelman, Claire Bidwell Smith and a small group of motherless daughters we each had the opportunity to display photographs of our mothers on a table decorated with flowers and candles. The moment was precious and significant. I think we should do this kind of thing more often. We should celebrate openly those who have passed on. Sometimes these occasions will be sad and sometimes, depending on many factors, these ceremonies will be joyous and comforting.
We who have lost loved ones yearn for the sense of their presence with us. The times when we share with others our memories of someone we loved and lost leaves us feeling nostalgic but energized because we can speak of these people who are still alive in our memories, the people we wish were still alive on earth today. These experiences warm and strengthen us as we discuss life, loved ones, loss and all that we know. Coco shows us that even after death, the spirit (and love) lingers on. In my writing I keep my mother’s memory alive every day. And I have framed photographs of her in several rooms around our home. Perhaps I’ll create a family collage next, consisting of photos of my grandparents, my uncles and loved ones who have crossed over to the other side.
Coco is an emotional film. It is also reassuring, visually appealing, thought-provoking and family friendly. For a child struggling to understand the death of a loved one this film offers an insight into how memories can keep the deceased alive in our minds. A respectful, realistic and beautiful portrayal of family life and customs in Mexico, Coco has a lot to offer. Spirit animals, dances with the dead, celebratory memorials…there is much to explore here. Death isn’t necessarily the end. I cried while watching Coco, but it was a good-feeling cry. There is much to be celebrated.
The dead are not distant or absent. They are alongside us. When we lose someone to death, we lose their physical image and presence; they slip out of visible form into invisible presence. This alteration of form is the reason we cannot see the dead. But because we cannot see them does not mean that they are not there. (John O’Donohue -Our Departed Loved Ones)