The brutal reality of COVID has made us confront our mortality in a collective way, mourning the deaths of friends and family, as well as the isolation of our own homes. It might be easy to fall into despair as death no longer seems like some distant event waiting for us after retirement, when our children and grandchildren are grown, or after that round-the-world trip on our bucket list.
Death may be a universal experience, but as Americans, it is often taboo to speak of it. We do practical preparations, like invest in life insurance plans, and then leave it to Hollywood dramas or true crime documentaries to tell us how to feel about death. In my case, it was a children’s film that helped me reflect on my own spiritual connection to the dead.
In November 2017, my husband and I decided to take our children to watch the movie Coco at the local theater. I remember sitting there in the dark during the last scenes of the film with tears streaming down my face, choking back sobs so that I wouldn’t scare my kids. But, children notice everything, and when mine asked why I was crying, I explained that I was thinking about my own grandparents — the endless love they had for me and the way my grandfather, Juan Rafael, lost so much of his memory by the time he died at 94.
Although Coco takes a great deal of license with Mexican cultural and theological beliefs, the celebration of the dead is a foundational aspect of my upbringing and one that the film captures in all its colorful glory. The film moved me so much more than any other children’s film. I was even willing to forgive the depiction of alebrijes as integral to Mexican culture, when they are primarily a form of folk art from Oaxaca dating just to the 1930s.
Death in Mexican Culture
For as long as I can remember, death has been present in my family’s daily life. Not in a frightening or gruesome way, but quite the opposite. Even outside of Halloween, All Saints Day (November 1), and All Souls Day or Day of the Dead (November 2), most Mexican households encourage open dialogue with their departed loved ones. This can be through prayer, song, or dedicating a meal in their honor.
Listening to stories of the dead interacting with the living was so commonplace that I never thought to question their veracity. My mother and father didn’t tolerate a lot of frivolity in our upbringing, so the stories of dead girls returning lost embroidery needles or turning on the lights in an empty room were simply true in my mind. The stories softened the boundary between our life and their death. As I grew older and understood the Catholic Church’s teachings on the communion of saints, the idea that I was spiritually connected to the dead through our sharing of the Body of Christ felt intuitive.
The Communion of Saints in Everyday Life
The communion of saints exists in three states: the Church Militant (the living), the Church Penitent (those in Purgatory), and the Church Triumphant (those in Heaven). Catholics believe that praying for the intercession of saints in Heaven can help those of us on Earth or in Purgatory.
Even now, as I usher my children into my parents’ home for an afternoon of swimming or pozole, we’re greeted by an altar above my mother’s sewing machine table, just as it was arranged throughout my life. At the center of the altar stands a statue of Our Lady of Guadalupe covered in rosaries, bouquets of roses in various stages of decay, and an ever-growing assortment of photos and funeral cards of friends and family. For many of these family members buried nearby, it was normal for our family to have an impromptu lunch or early dinner at the cemetery, sharing burritos and pan dulce over their graves to mark a birthday or death day, the day they were born into Eternal Life.
Today, most of my siblings are married and have children. It’s difficult to gather at the cemetery throughout the year, but we have continued to celebrate our dead on November 2. We spread out our picnic blankets over grave markers and let the kids chase each other in circles until we’re ready to call them over for a decade of the rosary and lunch. When I watched Coco for the first time with my children, I was filled with the same joy that I had running around cemeteries as a child, understanding that I will continue to be connected to all the people I love on Earth even as they move on into Heaven.
This time of year is one I look forward to, not only for the fun of dressing up and gathering together with friends and family, but also because as nature changes in preparation for winter, it’s a fitting time to explore our own feelings about death. As Catholics, we carry the hope of Heaven with us. And because we carry a connection with all of the dearly departed, death is not an unknown to us.