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The Mysteries of Life, Death, Life After Death, and Coco

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As someone who has been a fan of Pixar since Toy Story first graced the silver screen in 1995, I have been looking forward to seeing Coco since the release of the teaser trailer in March. Pixar (now Disney • Pixar) has a well-earned reputation for tapping into the universal elements of human experience through the particularity of remarkably specific storytelling. Who’d have ever thought that the plight of a missing clown fish or a lonely robot could be so . . . human? Or that the story of a geriatric widower ballooning to South America would appeal to audiences of all ages? Or that seeing emotions emote and remember would help people tap into their own feelings and memories? Pixar films introduce audiences to incredibly detailed and wildly imaginative worlds—worlds that are often unfamiliar and yet still somehow feel like somewhere we have been before. With Coco, Pixar has outdone itself, ushering audiences into a visually spectacular world where the practices of a particular culture are brought to life in such a way that they deeply resonate with viewers no matter where they’re from.

Just the premise of the film is enough to capture the attention of Catholic movie-goers. Coco is centered around the Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead), a holiday with origins in Mexico that is celebrated beginning at midnight on October 31 and concludes on November 2, All Souls’ Day. Miguel, the film’s twelve-year-old protagonist, finds that he has inadvertently crossed over into the land of the dead, and can only return to the land of the living with the help of his deceased family members and his canine friend Dante, an aptly-named street dog who accompanies him on his supernatural journey.

Most fairy tales involve life and death, and the tales of Pixar are certainly no exception (see especially Finding Nemo and Up), but for the first time in the studio’s history, it is the mystery of life after death that constitutes the central plot point. In a society where religious beliefs are often met with skepticism (especially in the movies) the fact that there is no opposition to this particular mystery of faith is itself worth noting. The film never denies or even expresses any doubt that, in this worldview, deceased family members are not only still alive (albeit in a different way), but are also still with them (albeit in a way the living can no longer see). The living not only continue to cultivate their relationships with the dead, but they also believe that they will be reunited with their deceased loved ones when the time comes for their own passing from this world. As for the deceased, the bonds they forged in life continue beyond the grave, and they too anticipate being reunited with the loved ones they left behind.

While the Day of the Dead figured prominently into another animated film, 2014’s The Book of Life (Reel FX and 20th Century Fox), here it is not an entangled romantic relationship, but a network of familial relationships that takes center stage. The tagline presented in Coco’s trailer affirms, “In this world and the next, family is forever.” Watching this film, I could not help but be reminded of the beautiful line from the Eucharistic Preface I for the Dead: “Indeed, for your faithful, Lord, life is changed not ended.”

The beauty of Coco is that these affirmations of life beyond the grave are no abstract platitudes. They are embodied realities, incarnated in physical practices and traditions that are part and parcel of the Day of the Dead. We see Miguel set up his family’s ofrenda as his great-grandmother Mama Coco looks on, carefully creating a shrine with photos of deceased family members and objects they loved in life illuminated by dozens of candles. We see beautiful garlands of marigolds and petals scattered on the sidewalk to provide a pathway for the dead. We see hundreds of townspeople from the village of Santa Cecilia (again, an aptly-named locale given the prominence of music throughout the film) gathering in the cemetery, picnicking at the graves of their loved ones, adorning their headstones with small retablos and favorite foods.

These practices, perhaps unfamiliar to non-Hispanic Catholics, are in fact firmly rooted in the life of the Early Church. Even as far back as the first few centuries of Christianity, the faithful would honor those who had given their lives for Christ in a way that resonates with the current practices surrounding the Day of the Dead. As John Baldovin, SJ notes:

The martyr was celebrated by the extended family that made up the Christian community each year on the day of his or her dies natalis [birthday into eternal life, i.e., the day of martyrdom] in the place where the body was buried.[1]

The particularity of both place and person are the site of celebrating the universal salvific love of Christ by which this person has been redeemed and through which this person’s death has become a birth into eternal life.

It is this particularity of place and person that Coco holds up to viewers in the story of its characters, and in the process, it invites viewers to discover the universal threads of that story in their own lives. I have never set up an ofrenda, but I do have photos of my late paternal grandmother and my uncle displayed on my piano, honoring the significant role they both played, and continue to play, in my musical life. The tassel from my Notre Dame graduation cap adorns a photo of my late grandfather, who spent time here in his college years, and even though he passed on before I arrived here myself, I have no doubt that he has gotten a huge kick out of the fact that I am now a double-domer who has spent the last five years working at Our Lady’s University. And as I continue to consider how best to remember and honor my maternal grandmother seven months after her passing, thanks to the beauty of the practices presented in Coco, I now have a more incarnational understanding of how that might be done. The photos, letters, and family heirlooms that adorn my home encourage me to keep my memories of and my relationships with my deceased loved ones alive by reminding me that they are still alive, alive in Christ. Thus, these mementos become sacramentals, pointing beyond themselves, helping me hold fast to my belief in the resurrection in which I hope to share one day.

Coco’s approach to the mysteries of life, death, and life after death is rooted in traditions and practices of faith that do not shrink from the darkness but rather scatter it with light and color and music, with food and relics and flowers, with the presence of family and the telling of stories, and most importantly, the unwavering hope that “life has changed, not ended”—that mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, tías, tíos, primos, abuelos, y abuelas will one day be reunited by the saving love of Christ.

Editorial Note: Throughout the month of November, Church Life Journal will explore the Catholic imagination as an imagination of sanctification. By sanctified imagination, we mean the imagination which highlights the core narrative of the Paschal mystery, as radiantly incarnate in the saints. We seek to reflect on the manifold ways Christ becomes all-in-all through the men and women of his mystical body, the Church. As our authors explore the various dimensions of the sanctified imagination (please click the link for a list of the posts), we invite you to think along with us.

You might also want to read the following piece by Tim Kelleher:

Life After Life After Death

Featured Image: Coco Logo [Detail], Source: Disney Wikia, Fair Use.

[1] John Baldovin, SJ, “On Feasting the Saints” in Between Memory and Hope: Readings on the Liturgical Year, ed. Maxwell E. Johnson (Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 2000), 377.

Carolyn Pirtle

Carolyn Pirtle is the program director of the Notre Dame Center for Liturgy and a composer of liturgical music.