You can tell you’re watching a Pixar movie if you’re having an existential crisis.
The studio has honed causing emotional damage to full-grown adults into a fine art, not only interjecting their films with some well-placed tragedy, but drawing on an interdisciplinary toolbox to wreak havoc with our basic concepts of the world: Inside Out, for example, manipulated scientific understandings of memory in order to make you blubber like an idiot over poor Bing Bong.
Pixar’s latest, Coco, is certainly no different. On the surface, it’s the story of a young boy named Miguel (Anthony Gonzalez), who is accidentally transported to the Land of the Dead, where he seeks the aid of his great-great-grandfather to help him return home.
The film opens on Día de Muertos (Day of the Dead), in which Miguel’s family, like so many in Mexico, gather round to make offerings and remembrances to their dead ancestors.
Our relationship to the dead is a key theme of Coco, introducing us to the concept of the “final death”. Those who reside within the colourful, bountiful Land of the Dead can do so only as long as there is someone to remember them in the Land of the Living; once that last memory is lost to time, that individual – quite literally – fades into nothingness.
However, Coco’s concept of the ”final death” actually draws straight from traditional Mexican ideas of the “three deaths”. The “first death” is the physical one, the death of the body. The “second death” is more of a natural one: the moment the body is laid to rest in the earth and returned into nature’s cycle. The “third death” is that breached in the film and is the most definitive: the moment the last memory of you fades. Día de Muertos helps to delay that final death.
Interestingly, director Lee Unkrich admitted Coco’s storyline actually pivoted from his original idea of a boy trying to get over the grief of a loss, in order to more accurately reflect Día de Muertos’s cultural purpose and the Mexican attitude to death, adding: “I’m American and that was at the time my natural entrance into a story. We realised that that thematically was antithetical to what Día de Muertos is also about, which is this obligation to never forget, to never let go. We at that point had an epiphany that we were making the film as outsiders.”
Día de Muertos derives partially from Aztec, Mayan and other indigenous practices, in which two months of festivities were dedicated to honour the dead, as presided over in Aztec mythology by the goddess Mictecacihuatl (Lady of the Dead); celebrations included fires, the wearing of animal skins, the displaying images of the dead and offerings of personal goods.
However, these traditions had to blend also with the Catholicism enforced by Spanish invaders. Día de Muertos is a variation, of sorts, of All Saints Day, celebrated 1 November and All Souls Day, celebrated 2 November.
In the eighth century, the Catholic church attempted to integrate the Celtic tradition of Samhain, celebrated on 31 October, the precursor to Halloween, in which the boundaries between the worlds of the living and the dead briefly thinned. Unlike the people of Mexico, the Celts reacted to the dead with a level of fear, offering animal heads and hides in an attempt to confuse them, while burning crops and animals as offerings.
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Part of this divide in practice derives from Atzec, Mayan and other indigenous beliefs that souls continue to exist after death in the Land of the Dead, called Mictlan by the Aztecs and Xibalba by the Mayans, without any damning notions of judgement or resurrection attached. Each year, these souls could then return to the Land of the Living to visit their loved ones.
Death, then, is not something to be feared – it is only a transition. And so, the more sombre All Saints Day and All Souls Day failed to be adopted in Mexico, with the celebratory Día de Muertos evolving into existence instead.
It’s a concept French philosopher Jean Baudrillard briefly touches upon in his discussion of the concept of “symbolic exchange,” explaining that non-Western cultures often conceive of the living and the dead as co-existing to some degree and that certain rituals allow for both to exist in the same space.
Western cultures do have some concept of a “final death” that bears similarity to Mexican traditions, but, once again, fear is a large motivator here. For example, the most damning punishment of the Roman Empire is known now as “damnatio memoriae”; enacted on traitors, or those who brought shame to the Senate, it involved the complete eradication of your name from history. Names would be erased off coins, statues would be reformed. It was a fate far worse than death itself.
Christianity, in turn, evolved the concept of “two deaths”: the first is the physical, the second comes from John’s description of his apocalyptic vision in the Book of Revelation, in which he sees a lake of fire into which the wicked are thrown, the lake functioning as a symbol of the “second death”.
This death was believed to be a spiritual one, as evangelical author A.W. Pink writes, “the eternal separation of the soul from God.” If being forgotten by your descendants seemed frightening enough, Christianity offers the fate of being further forgotten by an omnipotent higher power.
We again return to the fundamental differences between how Western and non-Western cultures conceive of death and memory: while Mexican tradition celebrates Día de Muertos as a way to prevent the “final death,” Western writers have approached the same subject with a tone of damning inevitability and there’s a more fraught relationship to be found within the culture itself.
A poem by Thomas Hardy, entitled “The To-be-Forgotten” goes as follows:
I heard a small sad sound,
And stood awhile among the tombs around:
"Wherefore, old friends," said I, "are you distrest,
Now, screened from life's unrest?"
—”O not at being here;
But that our future second death is near;
When, with the living, memory of us numbs,
And blank oblivion comes!
“These, our sped ancestry,
Lie here embraced by deeper death than we;
Nor shape nor thought of theirs can you descry
With keenest backward eye.
“They count as quite forgot;
They are as men who have existed not;
Theirs is a loss past loss of fitful breath;
It is the second death.
In Coco, Pixar turns to Mexican traditions to offer a more optimistic view: “final death” should not be viewed as some unavoidable terror, but as a remembrance to treasure our loved ones – both the living, and the dead.