I’m not Mexican, I’ve never celebrated Día de los Muertos, but I sobbed my way through “Coco,” the animated film that won at Sunday’s Oscars for its vibrant, orange-petal-filled depiction of the afterlife.
Having lost my mother somewhat recently, I found it seductive and mesmerizing to sit in a dark room full of other people and together, in front of a huge screen, plunge into the fantastical afterlife depicted in “Coco,” a detailed world where the dead picnic, party — and watch over the living attentively. My mind drifted to a skeleton version of my mother, impeccably dressed in a sweater-skirt set, in her law office or at some craft show and just as voracious and judgey as ever, schmoozing with the load of relatives and friends who preceded her in death — a possibility just too tempting. And the closeness and the longing between the living and the dead in the film left me a puddle.
Yeah, yeah, I know. It’s an animated film, a project launched probably not by hospice workers and clergy but Hollywood consultants and focus groups. And the story line of a family whose mourning and loss are eased by a guitar-playing little boy, a dopey dog and a father’s love for the chubby little girl he left behind in death? Sappiness defined. Even my 8-year-old teased me for crying.
But I have blurry ideas of what happens after death. That attribute makes me extremely common in a country where people are rapidly ditching institutional religion, with its paradigms, rules and stories, but remain mostly uncomfortable or unwilling to think deeply or talk with others about what they do believe and imagine, if anything, about the afterlife.
Americans have very few, if any, shared spiritual spaces. Which is why “Coco” and other mega-pop-culture experiences may be in modern times a kind of sanctuary, the closest thing we have — however cheesy it may seem — to “talking” about the religious or supernatural spheres in which all but the most hardcore nonbelievers still dabble. For many of us, these experiences open a door with others, and with ourselves, to touch the few religious topics that still feel widely relevant. That is not nothing at a time when public debates about presidential prayer breakfasts and which marriage or divorce documents God approves of seem for millions of Americans soul-killing.
But questions and thoughts about what happens to us and those we love after death remain, to most, as important as ever. Even for those who feel certain there is nothing — no kind of consciousness — after death, it’s easy in our culture to evade speaking that truth and what it means for our living days.
There is little solid data on the wide range of beliefs Americans have about post-death existence and how those views are changing. Much of what there is has to do with the words “heaven” and “hell” — amorphous for many. Seventy-two percent of Americans say they believe in heaven, and 58 percent in hell — numbers very slightly down since about a decade ago, according to the Pew Research Center.
People who work with the dying say these beliefs are fluid.
“Death opens you up,” said Aram Haroutunian, a longtime hospital and hospice chaplain in Denver. “And death is the great unknown. People are more open. And especially at the very end, they are very open.”
Haroutunian said he doesn’t think hammering out theology around the afterlife is a particularly common priority for the dying. However, he said, a common experience among hospice workers is hearing people who are dying start to speak of the deceased — long-dead family or friends — in the present tense, “like they’ve been talking with them.” Metaphors about travel are extremely common, he said: I’m getting on a train, taking a bus ride, packing my bags. “It’s uncanny,” he added.
With Americans becoming less religious — in an institutional sense — Haroutunian said he notices the dying, and their families, getting more ideas and language about the afterlife from nature. Many people respond to ideas like those of Thich Nhat Hanh, a famous Vietnamese Buddhist monk and teacher, who describes our lives as waves — with a beginning and end, and a larger ocean to which we return. “It’s this general idea that there is more to the story,” Haroutunian said.
As he noted, these are not new but ancient ideas that are played out in classical religious rituals. The paschal candle, used by various Christian communities, is a larger, communal candle whose flame is shared, and thus spread, at baptisms and funerals and on feast days.
Many Americans have sparse religious education, about their own tradition or others’, but often when someone is dying, they quietly look to old and new ideas about the afterlife.
Candi Cann, a Baylor University professor of religion who studies death and the afterlife, said it’s far from just those who have never paid attention to religion who haven’t hashed out what they think happens — if anything — after death. In some work she did with church-affiliated seniors, she asked them to write one page about the afterlife. The descriptions varied widely.
One described a waiting room. Another said there was a stadium of people you know watching pictures of your life, like a film. Another described a nebulous zone where one is neither conscious nor unconscious. “Others think it’s clouds in the sky,” she said.
“There is a difference between what people profess, what they say they’re part of and the actual ways they think about death and the afterlife.”
Baylor, a Baptist school, is in an evangelical part of Texas, and Cann said she sees more and more evangelical Protestants, influenced by growing numbers of residents of Mexican descent, putting up ofrendas — ritual Day of the Dead altars — and with no pushback from their Baptist neighbors. The holiday has millennia-old roots in Aztec and Catholic traditions, among others.
“I think that’s why ‘Coco’ did so well, because Americans don’t have a clear idea of the afterlife,” she said.
“Coco” posits a very specific afterlife, with unbreakable rules and regulations. While the backdrop is the Day of the Dead, the writers said they made up most of the world and its theology. The core rule of the movie is that people remain in the brilliant, vivid afterlife on one condition: Someone who knew them while they were alive remembers them and puts their photo on the ofrenda on the annual holiday. Once you are forgotten, or your photo is not put up, your full-bodied skeleton self and your afterlife are over forever. In other words, honoring the dead by remembering them is an urgent and serious responsibility.
In a recent interview on NPR’s “Fresh Air,” “Coco” co-writer Adrian Molina said the quality of the way station they created depends on one’s life — it’s not meant to be saccharine.
“For some this is paradise, because they’re remembered fondly and with love . . . for others, they’re straggling along. People’s memories aren’t fond,” Molina said. The young Mexican boy who enters this world and gets a glimpse of the afterlife leaves with a focus, Molina said: What is my part in the legacy of my family? What will I be remembered for? What’s important about the relationships I’m making through my life?
That resonates with my experience as a Jew. Judaism is centered not on the afterlife but the present. While there are rich images and notions in Jewish commentary over the millennia about the idea that there is something after death, what that is is extremely vague. A common Talmudic story is of an “upside-down world,” where the values of Earth are flipped. I had a mainstream, traditional Jewish education, which encourages Jews to focus on improving the living, present world, working to make it as just as possible.
Rabbi Kerrith Rosenbaum, a Jewish educator at Adas Israel synagogue in Washington, recently lost her father. She said “Coco” resonated for her not because of the ornate afterlife but for the story of a boy and his family who are trying to figure out how to honor and keep alive through memory those who have died.
“When I work through my own grief, it’s not tempered by an afterlife,” she said. Images — particular in Christianity — about death as a homecoming don’t speak to her. The movie was a way to speak to her children about how her father “lives inside each of us, and it’s on us to keep that piece of him alive.”
Rabbi Jason Weiner, director of spiritual care at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, said he hosts a class after services every year on the holiday of Yom Kippur. Usually about 50 people stay after for the class. When he held the class recently about the afterlife, 250 people stayed. Weiner has his own theory based on various Judaic sources. “The afterlife is totally just,” he believes, a kind of reflection on one’s life — the pains and joys — that ends with a kind of family reunification. “The primary experience is of love.”
All these ideas speak to me in different ways. I know my mother was skeptical about an afterlife, yet she told me that when her own mother was dying, Mom still found herself hoping that they would be together again someday. “Coco” evoked, even if just for a few hours, more musings than many of my prayer hours have about whether I would see my mother again.
Michelle Boorstein covers religion for The Washington Post.