Coco and the Afterlife

We saw Disney/Pixar’s Coco yesterday. What a lovely movie, seamlessly melding story, song, and screwball situations to create a soufflé of laughter and tears. At the essence of the story –– the dead have their own life, until they are forgotten by their family; only then do they truly disappear.

What happens when we die? Where does the consciousness of the departed go? Form changes to emptiness, but is everything lost? For those left behind, family members and friends, reminiscences have to be as unreliable as their memories. So what is left, and for how long?

Starting with Mexican culture, and the celebration of Dia de los Muertos, Coco creates a fantastically imagined afterworld, where the dead are alive, and living their lives, just like in the real world. If they are still remembered in the afterworld, they can travel into our world on Dia de los Muertos, and see their family. Unless they are forgotten by their family in the real world, which is when they disappear from the afterworld, to a place that even they don’t know.

If we continue this belief, how might it change in our age, where we can rely on technology to help us remember? Will succeeding generations continue to remember more of the earlier generations, and for how long?

Just because of technology support, I don’t think that memories will become infinite, and we will remember all our previous generations. Life will continue to get busier making remembrance an active requirement. Parents will need to spend time with their children to make sure they remember their grandparents, great grandparents and great, great grandparents, not to mention step parents at different generations.

While technology can capture our predecessors in photo and video, equally, technology generates so many images that sorting, filing, and summarizing will again need to be an active effort. Just like each of us carry large photo libraries, yet often have trouble finding a key moment, we may carry records of past generations, but never examine these records. We will be swamped in a “sea of remembering.”

So I believe that technology will not solve this problem of remembering our past generations. Only the active act of remembering can keep our past generations alive, and Coco, made with all the brilliance that technology can muster, shows us it doesn’t require technology. Just the desire to remember.



The Passing of a Friend


A Graduate School classmate passed away from cancer last week, and I attended his funeral. My first funeral for a friend, a contemporary, not an older relative.

He knew it was bad, and over 18 months, there were good times and bad times. He was sent home from the hospital at the end, and after a few days at home, passed away with his family around him. His family, friends and colleagues, all came to pay their last respects. As I sat on the carpet, listening to the Sikh priest sing the funeral hymns, a mix of thoughts ran through me.

First, what my funeral would be like. The future is totally unknown, except for the singular known fact that I will die. Depending on the circumstances, there will be a funeral.

Second, death is so different if expected due to cancer, versus a sudden passing due to an accident. When expected, along with the sadness, there seemed to be acceptance. I can imagine dazed expressions if death came unexpectedly.

Third, what happens when we die? If form is emptiness, and emptiness is form, the essence unchanging, what happens to the person? Like water that turns into ice or steam, have they just changed into a different form? Their memories continue with us, and perhaps if we practice deeply enough,  we can see them in the world around us.

Fourth, the family left behind thinking of their futures. The children missing the guidance and support of their Dad. A wife missing the smell and warmth of her husband. A parent distraught at the passing of child. Over days and nights, objects that remind us of a person who is no longer with us. It is so hard to be in the present moment, to not revisit past memories, or think of what the departed would say in future situations.

Fifth, how this situation is so unusual. For time immemorial, death was a constant companion for everyone. Whether by disease, war, accident, or old age, the distribution of age at death was very different, with many deaths at earlier ages. Even a journey may have meant that one would never see a loved one again. How stressful and uncertain life must have been in the past!

I sat and listened to the music, lost in these thoughts and in memories of my friend, and I wished him goodbye.