Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives, a 2009 collection of short stories by David Eagleman, imagines life beyond the grave in a variety of mutually exclusive ways. In a fragment called “Metamorphosis,” Eagleman describes a waiting room or airport-type lobby in which the departed mill about socializing — but only as long as they are remembered among the living.
When the last memory of a dead person dies on Earth, the individual’s name is called and they depart through a door to what is said to be a better place, though no one has come back to tell what lies beyond. (Eagleman calls this departure “the third death,” the first two being bodily death and burial.)
In this arrangement, some very famous souls live on for centuries, while others last only a short time. In a sad irony, many new arrivals just miss being reunited with those who had long awaited them, since the new arrivals were the ones whose memories had sustained those they missed.
It seems likely that “Metamorphosis” was an important influence on the afterlife in Pixar’s Coco, though naturally the Land of the Dead in Coco is far more colorful and varied than Eagleman’s fluorescent-lit lobby. In that respect Coco reflects another notable influence: Fox’s The Book of Life (2014), from Mexican filmmaker Jorge Gutiérrez, with which it shares a Mexican cultural milieu and a Día de Muertos (Day of the Dead) theme.
With one crucial exception, almost every important idea in “Metamorphosis” shows up in Coco, including the peril of being forgotten on Earth just before the loved ones remembering you arrive.
The exception is this. In Coco, when the forgotten pass from the Land of the Dead, there is no door, and no one calls their name or tells them they are going to a better place. Their skeletal forms are wracked with tremors and weakness, and they simply fade into dust. And this is not called “the third death,” but “the final death.”
On Earth, and even in the afterlife, Mexico’s Catholic heritage has not been entirely effaced. There are church buildings and crosses on monuments in cemeteries and in homes. An image of Our Lady of Guadalupe adorns a wall in the home where our protagonist, 12-year-old Miguel (Anthony Gonzalez), lives with his extended family.
Miguel’s elderly, irascible Abuelita (Renée Victor) crosses herself, and someone says “Santa María!” I don’t remember any actual priests or nuns, but we see that there are movie priests and nuns in a clip of a film-within-the-film starring Miguel’s hero: the late, great Mexican guitarist and singer Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt), who not only sings and plays guitar in a Roman collar, but even flies like Superman.
Yet what good is Catholic iconography when the movie pretty explicitly stipulates that life after death is strictly a temporary affair, tied to earthly memory? A stopover in skeleton-land is one thing, as long as there’s some openness to the idea that this isn’t the end. A “final death” with no hint or hope of a further stage or life beyond seems to make a mockery of that image of Our Lady of Guadalupe and the crosses dotting the landscape.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.