By Bob Smietana
For Washington Post religion writer Michelle Boorstein, watching Coco, an Oscar-winning Pixar film, was a powerful experience.
The animated film imagines an afterlife where the dead keep a close eye on their living relatives. It’s based on the Day of the Dead, a prominent holiday in Mexico.
The film brought her to tears as she thought of her late mom, who died in the past year. She pictured her mom as a character in the film, “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,” she wrote.
Boorstein, who is Jewish, admits she’s not sure what she thinks about life after death. And she doesn’t think much about it.
She’s not alone.
Americans may believe in heaven (78 percent) and hell (59 percent), according to Pew Research. But we often avoid thinking about them.
About half of Americans rarely wonder if they’ll go to heaven when they die, according to Lifeway Research. Less than a third (29 percent) think about that question at least once a month.
So many of us rarely want to talk about what happens when we die.
Here’s how Boorstein put it:
“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.”
On top of this, Americans have “few, if any, shared spiritual spaces.”
As a result, a film like Coco can be “a kind of sanctuary,” a place where Americans can think about big questions like life after death, without arguing. That’s no small thing, Boorstein argues, in a country divided by faith—where discussions about religion often devolved into feuds about social issues.
In the imagined afterlife of Coco, the dead live on only if they are remembered. When they are forgotten, they fade away.
And there are consequences for how people lived their lives. Some people are remembered with love. For some, the memories are bitter, the film’s co-writer, Adrian Molina, told NPR.
His co-writer partner, Lee Unkrich, said death was a taboo subject when he was growing up.
“Cemeteries were just kind of grim, gray places devoid of color,” he said. “And in my own religion, we have this concept of the yahrzeit, which is a yearly remembrance of people who have passed on, on the anniversary of their death, and it’s kind of a—you know, it’s a somber time.”
Unkrich, who is Jewish, said making the film helped him work through the death of his father, who saw Coco just before he died.
Boorstein had previously written about how her mom’s passing affected how she celebrated Passover.
She found the idea of the afterlife as a family reunion appealing. And it would have appealed to her mom as well.
“I know my mother was skeptical about an afterlife,” she wrote, “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.”
BOB SMIETANA (@BobSmietana) is senior writer for Facts & Trends.