Finding his way through the vibrant “Land of the Dead” in the Disney/Pixar film Coco, Miguel sadly watches an older soul fade away in front of him. Perplexed that someone can disappear, even from the land of those who no longer live, he asks his trickster companion Héctor what happened.
Poignantly, Héctor informs Miguel that, “Our memories, they have to be passed down by those who knew us in life—in the stories they tell about us.” Otherwise, he warns, we eventually fade away.
Coco won international praise for its depiction of the many colorful customs and symbols of death in Mexican culture. The vivid orange of marigolds and the vibrant painted skulls (calaveras) are common visual images associated with Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead).
Encountering and learning about the images, traditions, and meanings of Día de los Muertos help me to appreciate the communal experiences of death. Seeing those who celebrate Día de los Muertos gather for a celebration of faith and family in the midst of death remind me that there is hope beyond the grave and that is something to be honored even as we mourn those we’ve lost.
Coco brought these symbols to the big screen, but dancing skulls, elaborate artistic representations of a skeleton woman (La Catrina), and blooming flowers are common practices associated the holiday. In fact, they not only adorn altars in homes and cemeteries, but they also find their way into museums, menus, suburban jack-o-lanterns, art shows, clothing, and high-fashion runways.
The images associated with Day of the Dead are more than a hipster Halloween costume or a cool new tattoo. They point to more significant meanings and traditions surrounding death and dying in Latin American culture and religion.
The Day of the Dead points to a different way of approaching the end of life and what it means to remember and interact with your loved ones—both here and now, and beyond the pale of this world. Personally, it reminds me to honor my elders, think on those who have passed with joy and not simply with sadness, and to not take those still with me for granted. We are a community, after all, both dead and alive.
Día de los Muertos is a holiday celebrated across the American hemisphere near the end of October or the beginning of November, with the official celebrations taking place on November 1 and 2 by people in Mexico, Guatemala, the United States, and some other South American nations.
The calaveras in particular help point to the deeper meaning of the holiday. You see these painted skulls all around Mexico—in poetry and graffiti murals, on shirts and jewelry, in ancient Mexican (Aztec) carvings, and in modern sculpture on city streets. One celebrant I talked to in my research said, “Calaveras remind us to celebrate life.” She said that celebrating life did not have to stop because of death.
Death is inevitable, to be sure. It will sting us all. But rather than being a dead end, it is also seen by Día de los Muertos participants as, “a rite of passage.” The celebrant further said, “the inevitable, our fate, or whatever you call it, cannot be avoided; it must be embraced and danced with.” Like the sugar skulls that the holiday is known for, she said, death “can even be sweet.” This view looks beyond the shock of death to the sweetness of more life to come beyond the grave.
Traditionally, the holiday is a time for families, neighborhoods, and whole towns to come together to remember and celebrate the lives of their ancestors, both young and old, and to make offerings (ofrendas) to the deceased. The celebrations are many and varied, but they often include elaborate processionals, graveyard ceremonies, skulls, stories of those passed, and parties to celebrate those who live beyond the grave.
For example, the Houston-based organization Multicultural Education and Counseling through the Arts (MECA) puts on a festival every year that features brilliant ofrendas, music, and dance in celebration of life and to honor the dead. In this way, they keep the customs of Mexican culture alive in Texas.
“For me, El Día de los Muertos brings my family together to remember and celebrate the life of those passed,” says Aida Hernandez, a Houston-area Spanish teacher. “To us it is a very spiritual time and not just about the decorations or food.”
Influenced by the Roman Catholic celebration of All Saints’ and All Souls’ Days, the holiday has its roots in Mayan and Mexican customs and beliefs. The modern manifestation of Day of the Dead is an amalgamation of various cultural influences both North and South of the border.
This blending of traditions has taken historical threads and tied them together to form strong social bonds that continue to tie communities together from Chicago to Chihuahua. Even as these traditions travel and get blended with new customs, they remain powerful practices of bonding and community cohesion.
As long as we believe that our loved ones, our memories, and our lives do not end at death, but transition from one state to another, we will search for ways to connect this life to the next. More than that, Coco and the long-held practices of Día de los Muertos speak to the powerful ways that religion remains a relevant way for people from many traditions to connect with family and friends even in the midst of mourning.
While we should be careful to not co-opt others’ cultures, the Day of the Dead has something to teach us all about celebrating life together even in the face of death.
This post reflects the views and experiences of the author, and is intended to start a conversation. Please share your thoughts in the comments below!
Or, if you’d like to hear some thoughts on death, dying, and the afterlife from Christians at THRED, you can find those over here .