Updated: Nov 2, 2018
Pixar and the 3 Stages of Death
Dia de los Muertos is the holiday to celebrate in Mexico. Christmas and other Christian holidays are still extremely relevant and revered, but it is this holiday that combined the pre-hispanic cultures of the Aztecs and Mayans with the zealous Spanish catholics that has created one of the most misunderstood and quite frankly one of the most interesting festivities in the world.
And being a philosophical blog, we aren’t looking for just a history report or quirky look at some strange people acting in strange ways. Though there will be a little of both of those along the way. We’re going to look at what really gives us gringos and extraños something to learn from and hopefully entertain a different perspective on the idea of death. A question and realization we all struggle with from time to time and no doubt have some belief about one way or the other.
Coco : Another Existential Crisis Induced by Charming Animation
Recently, I watched Pixar’s tribute to the most festive holiday in Mexico, Dia de los Muertos. An extra special pat on the back (I give) to myself for watching it in Mexico with my own local Mexican cultural expert (and girlfriend) to answer my questions while watching the film. And for anybody unfamiliar with Mexico’s ‘Day of the Dead’, this film is a soft and good introduction into it.
I won’t go too much into the synopsis of the film and will avoid any spoilers, because if you haven’t seen it, you really should. Big picture, the film takes place in Mexico with a young boy who has a dream, has family issues, and eventually finds himself in the land of the dead and learning along the way as he tries to find his way back to the land of the living.
The movies touches on different themes, but the key theme of Coco is the relationship we, the living, have with death. Which is something I greatly appreciate as it seems in most Western cultures, death is something we see as evil, best to avoid and ignore if possible, and any sort of dialogue about the matter is strictly frowned up.
We sweep it under the rug and tell the ones we love that they’re going to be okay and back at it in no time. Denial being the preferred approach we use thus far. Besides Coco, the only mainstream media I can think of that truly speaks of death in a philosophical way is HBO’s Six Feet Under. A top five of tv shows for this guy.
The movie, Coco, also deserves a tip of the hat to the director Lee Unkrich. Who in the initial premise of creating the movie planned on creating a story about a boy who travels to Mexico and tries to get over a loss. Realizing, however, that he knew little to nothing about the Dia de los Muertos, he took the time to ask the locals and truly learned about the holiday. In the end, he adjusted the film to more accurately portray the Mexican perspective on death.
‘It was born out of the fact that I'm not Latino myself. I'm American and that was at the time my natural entrance into a story,’ said Unkrich. ‘We realized that that thematically was antithetical to what Dia de los 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.’
It took him six years to make the movie, but it turned out to be a hit, respected and loved by the people he learned about.
The Three Deaths
One of the new ideas that Coco will introduce to most non-Mexican peoples is the idea of the three deaths. More specifically the ‘final death’, or the death when you are no longer remembered by anybody in the living world. I remember having thoughts like this when I was younger and first started contemplating my own mortality.
My concept of death has evolved over time, but I can still remember hanging on to the idea that you get to see all your loved ones and people that knew you one last time before you finally fade into nothingness.
‘In our tradition, people die three deaths. The first death is when our bodies cease to function; when our hearts no longer beat of their own accord, when our gaze no longer has depth or weight, when the space we occupy slowly loses its meaning.
The second death comes when the body is lowered into the ground, returned to mother earth, out of sight.
The third death, the most definitive death, is when there is no one left alive to remember us.’
From the Mexican tradition, Los Dias de los Muertos (the Days of the Dead)
The first death being a physical one. The second, a more natural one - returning to Earth and nature’s cycle. And the third and final death being the death of your memory. When you truly no longer exist in any form. So the Dia de los Muertos is a way to prolong that final death for those that cared for you.
This is not to say that other Western cultures have not had their own versions of the final death. Usually though the final death was rooted in fear. The ultimate death in Roman society was ‘damnatio memoriae.’ Which meant you would be removed from all of history; Erased from books, scratched off coins, and even have your statues resculpted.
That is scary. Though perhaps not as scary as John’s ‘second death’ in Revelations with his lake of sulfuric fire where even your omnipotent God forgets you.
‘... the eternal separation of the soul from God.’
- A. W. Pink, ‘Eternal Punishment’
I can’t say to hold strong beliefs into the multiple-death system, but I very much like the idea behind it. I would add one form of death before the original three though. The first death: the day you realize your mortality.
To read part 2 of our 3-part tribute to Los Dias de los Muertos, click here. If for some reason you would like to skip my entertaining history report on this fascinating holiday, click here to go straight to part 3… Puppies!