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Coco: How Pixar uses Mexican culture to talk to kids about death

Miguel and Hector duet in a scene from Coco

This past Friday night, my Disney-obsessed best friend dragged me to watch Coco with her at Harland Cinema. Okay, okay, you got me, she didn’t have to drag me; I totally wanted to go because I, too, am Disney-obsessed. Coco is about a boy named Miguel and his family in Mexico celebrating ‘Día de Muertos’ – day of the dead – which is the night when souls can cross over from the spirit world to visit their living relatives. In the movie, Miguel flips the script and is sent to the Land of the Dead while he’s still alive to learn about the value of family. This animated movie is intended for a young audience, so I was pleasantly surprised that, besides being visually stunning, it successfully presented some mature topics with nuance and wisdom. These intense themes range from spousal resentment to old age and dementia, but for class we’ll focus on death and the concept of staying connected with those that have left this world.

In the world depicted in Coco, a person’s soul lives on in the Land of the Dead after they die. Each year on Día de Muertos, a bridge is constructed between the spirit world and the living world. Souls whose families remember them fondly can cross over this bridge to see their descendants once again. If a soul is not remembered fondly, and therefore not pictured on anyone’s ‘ofrenda’ – a ritual altar where the living place offerings for their ancestors – then they are not allowed to cross the bridge. This was the case with the soul of Miguel’s great-great-grandfather Hector, who was said to have abandoned the family and was ripped out of the photo with his wife and now elderly daughter Coco. The only problem for Hector initially was that he missed out on seeing Coco each year, which was devastating for him. However, his true problem arose due to Coco’s failing memory; when the time comes that everyone who remembers a soul during his/her life has died, the soul suffers “the Final Death”, disappearing from the Land of the Dead forever.

I find this concept to be the most intriguing part of the movie. Mexican culture very clearly embraces death as a natural part of life, as indicated by its festival to reconnect with deceased loved ones. However, the Land of the Dead in the movie is vivacious and doesn’t feel very different from Miguel’s living world. Yet the presence of this ominous final death shows that even cultures which encourage acceptance of human mortality still have a fear of death. This stirs up the question about what it is we are actually afraid of: is it the fact that the souls disappear into the unknown after their Final Death? Many fears stem from the unknown, such as nyctophobia (fear of the dark), or xenophobia (fear of foreign people or situations). Such can be said about a fear of death. However, there is a discrete point at which the souls in Coco experience the Final Death, which is when there is nobody left in the living world who remembers them. This suggests that perhaps fear of Final Death really is about a societal terror of being forgotten. With the rise of social media has come an increase in the prevalence and desire to live in the public eye. For people who prioritize fame in life, surely being remembered after death is also of serious concern.

Regardless of what property of death is so scary, Coco does an excellent job of creating a platform for parents to talk about death with their kids in a more approachable way, and to introduce them to a culture which has a healthy relationship with mortality.

Be Right Back

Black mirror is a popular Netflix original anthological series that examines the dark aspects of modern society with countless casts and stories, from political satires to future dystopias. Despite the vast palette of styles, the show centers around a common theme: technology changes, but people don’t. To relate this to burial and the process of dying, consider season 2, episode 1 of the series. “Be Right Back” begins with one of the most realistic couples the show has featured. Ash and Martha are clearly very much in love. The episode focuses on Martha’s bereavement after Ash’s sudden death.

      Martha practically sleepwalks through Ash’s funeral until her friend recommends that she try an experimental service that reconnects the living their deceased loved ones. The service uses algorithms to create a memory bot using online data such as photos, videos, and texts written by the person who had passed. This essentially creates a tailored “version” of the deceased loved one.

      The service offers different levels of interaction. The first is through texting. After trying the service, Martha began to receive texts from this version of Ash, in which the bot simply mimicked Ash’s texting habits and humor. The second is through calling. Martha sent the service samples of Ash’s voice, and the service used them to call Martha as Ash. Finally, the service could create a real life replica of a loved one. The creepiness of the concept is masked by Martha’s grief, and she soon has a walking, talking clone of her dead fiancé.

      Martha quickly became frustrated with all the subtle but important ways that the android was unlike Ash, particularly in that it was cold, passive, and emotionless. So she locked it in her attic. To Martha, the bot was not quite Ash, but too much like him to let it go. This led to a grief that spanned decades.

       Surprisingly, Martha’s unhappy ending didn’t dissuade computer scientist Eugenia Kuyda from repeating the experiment. After her best friend, Roman Mazurenko, suddenly passed away, Eugenia was overwhelmed with loss. As she grieved, Eugenia found herself looking through the thousands of text conversations between her and Roman. This inspired her to use the ever improving artificial neural network, allowing artificial intelligence to “learn” as a human brain would, to use Roman’s messages as the basis of a memorial bot.

      The prototype worked. Roman’s friends and family, (and now the public,) can communicate with the Roman memorial bot. Eugenia and other friends of Roman have said that the responses actually do sound like things that their loved one would say. As soon as the bot was created, Eugenia asked it, “Who’s your best friend?” to which Roman responded, “Don’t show your insecurities.” Immediately, Eugenia thought that it sounded like him.

       Unlike the Black Mirror episode, Eugenia believes that the memorial bot has helped, rather than hurt, her grief. She likened it to “just sending a message to heaven. For me it’s more about sending a message in a bottle than getting one in return.” The grieving process is different for everyone, and if a memorial bot system was available to the public, it may help many people overcome the deaths of loved ones.

Memorial bot article:

The Three Faces

Since taking a course on The Philosophy of Religion with Dr. Wendy Farley, I have developed an interest in studying death and suffering. Naturally, I began to pay more attention to how death appeared in every day life and how we (as mortal beings) interact with the idea and consequences of death. The first topic related book I picked up thereafter was The Sacred Art of Dying: How World Religions Understand Death, and I would often read the book behind the coffee shop counter on a slow afternoon. Though it has been two years since I have read the book, I clearly remember author Kenneth Kramer, in his introduction, depicting death in three faces: physical death, psychological death, and spiritual death.

He describes physical death in a way that matches the medical and biological death we have studied in class. There is irreversible l­oss of brain waves, damage to the central nervous system, and cessation of cardiac and respiratory function (Kramer 1988 p.11). Psychological death is “the life of quasi-consciousness, living, as if having already died,” and spiritual death is “the transformation of old patterns, habits, roles, identities and the birth of a new person” (Kramer 1988 p.11). The latter two faces of death left me much to ponder. While I was comfortable and familiar with physical death, Kramer’s framing of psychological and spiritual death was jolting and new to me. The book focused on spiritual death and explained religious aspects of death such as attitudes and rituals. (Super recommend the book for anyone interested!)

Reading about spiritual death inspired me travel abroad to study suffering and Buddhism more closely—but that’s a story for another time. Presently, I contemplate the face of psychological death and its meaning. is I wonder if some cases of severe depression can qualify as psychological death. Kramer describes psychological death as a “reversible termination of one’s personal aliveness,” “a kind of emotional death” and “a lessening of aliveness” (Kramer 1988 p.18-19). Say we assume depression is indeed a form of psychological death. Narratives regarding depression and mental health often share stories of numbness, apathy, a lack of will, loss of interest and pleasure in activities, hopelessness and more. These symptoms and experiences of illness fit into the characteristics of psychological death Kramer describes. Suicide ideation could be seen as the desire to experience physical death if perhaps a person already felt psychologically dead. The notion that psychological death is reversible might also speak to the treatable aspect of depression through medications, counseling, psychoanalysis, meditation, and other forms of therapy. I do not know if psychological death is something widely accepted or discussed, but I do think it is an interesting way to frame mental illness.



Kramer, K. 1988, The Sacred Art of Dying: How World Religions Understand Death. New York: Paulist Press.

Lonely Deaths


I was on snapchat, after the horrid update, and I went to the discovery section because it was  too frustrating  to figure out the actual snapchat part. I like to browse through the magazines and journals that discuss everything from beauty tips and lifestyle content to world news. I came across this one post in particular that struck me. The article was titled, “Cleaning up After the Dead.”

Those who know me well  understand why I was  drawn to a title like this. For those who don’t, I have a never ending interest when it comes to dark and unanswered things, such as death. However, this article was not about death. The bigger picture  focused on one of my least favorite topics: relationships.

As the world becomes, debatably, more progressive, relationship status is not as important, especially in Japan where one was supposed to find a spouse at a young age and start a family. Well, the people of Japan, and society internationally, have decided that a relationship is not a priority. People are living longer and accomplishing more due to the advancement of biomedical technologies which has shifted our values. I know I do not want to get married anytime soon; there is too much for me to see and do in the world-alone.

I come from a small town in Maryland where a lot of the girls set out to find a boyfriend in high school, follow him to college, and then get married after graduation. This has happened to a handful of my, high school friends. I am not criticizing them, it is just interesting how societal values can change, but even with international communication, some communities stay the same. Anyways, this is not the case in Japan. More men than women are choosing to stay single for longer or even opt out of marriage and the relationship lifestyle forever.


This is great, but unfortunately it takes an eerie turn. Men are dying alone and while that is already sad, their bodies are not discovered right away. It can take up to four months to figure out a tenant is dead. If they are living alone, nobody notices their absence until their neighbors  distinguish a foul scent, their mail piles up, or they are behind on rent.

Yes, their bodies do begin to decompose into the floor and maggots find their way into the housing. This happens so often that a new industry has opened in the Japanese economy for crews thats specialize in cleaning up after lonely deaths. Landlords can and often do purchase insurance, lonely death insurance, so they will not have to pay much to have the apartment cleaned for a new tenant.

Shocking, right? I guess it is good for the economy; it is just sad that when an individual chooses themself over others, they suffer a lonely death where their body sits and decomposes until someone else’s life is affected by the death. Basically, the moral of the story is: find a significant other!


A History of Poppies, War, and Death


The opium poppy, effortlessly sprouting across several continents, has captured the attention of humankind for thousands of years.  Likely due to its sedative effects, the ubiquitous scarlet flower has consistently been associated with death.  The Greeks depicted Hypnos and Thanatos, the gods of sleep and death, donning crowns of red poppies.  After World War I, millions of people began to line their pockets with the same red petals in remembrance of the fallen soldiers.  Today in the US, the flower reminds us an alarming epidemic, claiming thousands of lives each year: the opioid crisis.  But before that, another opiate crisis loomed large in a different empire: the Qing dynasty.

Throughout the 18th century, Britain facilitated unbalanced trade with China that heavily consisted of opium exports to China; by 1767, Britain was exporting two thousand chests of opium to the country each year.  In 1839, Lin Zexu, the Chinese imperial commissioner, put a foot down on its trade and enacted laws banning the substance from the country.  In a letter to Queen Victoria, Lin Zexu questioned why Britain continued to supply opium to China, considering that it was banned in Britain:

I have heard that you strictly prohibit opium in your own country, indicating unmistakably that you know how harmful opium is. You do not wish opium to harm your own country, but you choose to bring that harm to other countries such as China. Why?

There was no response to the letter.  What followed was two opium wars, eventually forcing China to legalize the importation of opium.  The effects ultimately derailed the country and toppled the Qing Dynasty.

Fast forward to 2018: America is facing a public health emergency, wrangling with the devastating consequences of opioid addiction.  Back in November, President Donald Trump announced that he would discuss with Chinese President Xi Jinping on how to stop the “flood of cheap and deadly” fentanyl “manufactured in China” into the United States.  (Fentanyl is a particularly deadly type of opioid, 50 to 100 times stronger than morphine; large quantities of the substance are reportedly being illegally shipped to the US.) 

The very mechanism that makes opioid highs so euphoric is also what makes them so deadly: once opioids enter the bloodstream, they bind to receptors in the brain, producing effects that block pain and provide relief, but also slow breathing.  Victims of overdose often die from respiratory depression, physically unable to breathe in enough oxygen to keep their organs alive.  Perhaps this is why humankind cannot seem to shake its toxic obsession with the opium poppy, century after century being lulled into the sweet calm it provides, only be led into a tortured death by addiction.  One thing is for certain: the United States must take urgent action to address the epidemic, lest we see the fall of another empire.


“Lin Zexu: Letter to Queen Victoria, 1839.” Longman World History,

Maron, Dina Fine. “How Opioids Kill.” Scientific American, 8 Jan. 2018,

“Opium Throughout History.” PBS, Public Broadcasting Service,

Pletcher, Kenneth. “Opium Wars.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, inc., 9 Mar. 2017,

Wee, Sui-lee, and Javier C. Hernandez. “Despite Trumps Pleas, Chinas Online Opioid Bazaar Is Booming.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 8 Nov. 2017,

“Am I Dying”

In this class, we have discussed preparation for death in multiple instances. In “The Undertaking” a couple prepares for the death of their child and elderly plan their funerals. We know psilocybin mushroom can help ease the fear of death in terminal patients. We have discussed the importance of advanced directives. We don’t often consider the moment right before death.

Mathew O’Rielly, an emergency medical technician, gave a Ted Talk about the moment a critically injured person asks, “Am I going to die?” Early in his career, Mathew expected his patients to be consumed by the well-recognized fear of death that we see in American people. He wanted to treat this fear as he would any other symptom, and provide as much relief as possible. So, he lied to the patients to comfort them. He didn’t want their last moments to be moments of terror and desperation.

One patient in a motorcycle accident changed his approach. The patient was imminently dying and the EMTs were powerless to save him. Mathew decided to this time tell the truth, and inform the man that he was dying. Mathew was shocked by his reaction. He, “Laid back and had a look of acceptance on his face… I saw inner peace.” It was not fear, it was not terror. In the moment before death, the patient accepted death, and Mathew says this is the reaction he has gotten from almost all patients in his career.

Mathew also observed a pattern of three commonalities in imminently dying patients. First, they needed forgiveness. Whether it was “sin” or just regret, there is something they wish they had done differently and they seek forgiveness. Second, they want to be remembered. I was surprised that Mathew said many patients ask, “will you remember me?” It is not just a need for the family or loved ones to remember them after death, but a more general desire. Finally, they wanted to know that their lives had meaning; that they made a difference and their lives are not menial. Mathew seemed to think most people underestimated the positive influences they had.

It is difficult to imagine how we would react to death if confronted with it in such an immediate way. We have discussed at length our society’s fear of death and how that influences our behavior, but Mathew’s experience provides a perspective not many people know. I think his experiences might challenge the way we think about the fear of death in our culture, at least to understand our relationship with death is complicated and nuanced.

Roman and Greek Necromancy

Necromancy, also known as nigromancy, describes a theoretical magical practice of communicating with the dead.  This happens either through raising them by summoning the spirit. Generally, the goal of this practice is to use the dead for divination; the practice of acquiring knowledge about the unknown or the future through supernatural means.

In classical antiquity, a term associated with the history of the ancient Greece and ancient Rome, there was much fascination about the practice of Necromancy. This time period looked at ghosts and the wisdom that they could provide. In their attempts, they would visit oracles, try to reawaken skulls and corpses, and sleep on tombs. The personal involved in ancient Necromancy included the likes of zombies, early vampires, shamans, Chaldeans, Roman emperors, sorceress, ghosts and witches.

There was a general understanding that even during the time of Classical Antiquity that majority agreed that it was better to leave the dead unmolested and only a few people engaged in this practice. I think this runs parallel to our culture now where there is a general understanding that we do not defile the dead once they are gone but also likewise that there are people who choose to act against that grain. Overall Necromancy during this time was seen more prominently in literature.

Do I believe in the legitimacy of this practice? No. Do I believe in ghost, spirits, the dark arts? Not really. It’s not something that I have explored extensively but I do believe in supernatural powers in more biblical/Christian way. Necromancy addresses a question that we have explored in ANT Death and Burial. Which is where do our spirits go when we die? With Necromancy there is this idea that even after death you are able to actively contribute to society. After you die your legacy lives on; whether it is big, small, good or bad.

New Brain-Imaging Scans for Patients in Vegetative States

The other day I read a headline regarding a woman waking up from a vegetative state after seven years. After reading many articles about the Terri Schiavo case, I had to read about this woman. It turns out that she fell into a coma after giving birth due to developing sepsis, a deadly blood poisoning disease. It seemed almost impossible to me that she woke up from this vegetative state after reading about the true definition of a vegetative state. After doing some research I began to find more cases in which patients have woken up after being labeled as “vegetative.”

A woman named Maggie Worthen fell into a coma after suffering a massive stroke at the age of 22. She woke up from a deep coma two weeks later and began her recovery; however, two months after therapy she became unresponsive and was labeled as “vegetative.” Her family claimed that she was responding to certain things but only one doctor believed them (similar to Terri Schiavo) and she was transferred to a hospital to experience new high-tech imaging that assesses brain activity. The technology did, in fact show that she was responsive and she was now labeled as “minimally conscious.”

This new technology can help people in these comas or vegetative states be properly diagnosed. Some neurologists are claiming that these new brain imaging scans prove that “some seemingly vegetative patients are actually teetering between consciousness and unconsciousness.” While this is definitely a break through in the medical world, it still makes things very murky. The definitions of these so-called labels are still obscure. When are these patients considered alright to die? Are they ever, because some people are waking up from these states? All of these questions emerge when new technology comes about. Imagine if this was around during the Terri Schiavo case. However, we can only hope that this new brain-imaging technology can help patients with severe brain injuries and damage to recover.

Maternal Deaths in the U.S.

mother holding baby

Photo Credit: Elisa Talentino, New York Times

When most American couples get pregnant their attentions immediately turn to the bundle of joy they are about to bring into the world. They worry whether they will be good parents and whether their child will be born healthy. They have financial worries. They nest. But they most likely do not consider leaving the hospital without the mother of the child in toe.

On a global scale, rates of maternal mortality rates have taken a sharp turn for the better. However, as the rest of the world makes improvements, maternal death rates have increased in the United States. According to the Institute of Health Metrics and Evaluation, American rates have increased by more than half since 1990. Among other rich nations, the United States is the only country to experience an increase in maternal birth rates. Unlike the maternal deaths of 19th century caused by eclampsia, this recent increase is associated with chronic medical conditions such as diabetes and obesity, especially among African American women. Additionally,women are giving birth at older ages. Although maternal deaths are hard to count, many experts claim that the deaths are indeed on the rise.

 Maternal mortality hits very close to home, especially for one American family, the Buhanan-Deckers. Jared Buhanan-Decker, who shared his story on the podcast, Strangers, lost his wife to a rare condition called amniotic fluid embolism. This condition occurs when the amniotic fluid leaks into the blood stream of the mother and triggers a severe immune reaction in which oxygen is cut off to all non-vital organs. The uterus is considered a non-vital organ; therefore oxygen supply is cut off from the baby. In many cases, both mother and baby die. In Jared’s case, on the very same day his son was born his wife died. He claims his wife gave up her life for that of their child. Although, amniotic fluid embolism is an extremely rare condition that accounts for 7.5% to 10% of maternal deaths in the U.S., it is a reminder that women still die while giving life. 

Maternal deaths show us how closely linked death and life are and how dangerous giving birth continues to be. Accompanied by great grief is great joy. While mourning the death of the child’s mother, the surviving parent must create an environment for a baby to flourish and grow. The surviving parent will someday have to explain to their child why and how his or her mother died. For Jared, when those questions arise, he plans to tell his son that it was not his fault that his mother died. If anything she chose to save him by sacrificing her own life. In making meaning of his wife’s death, Jared is able to come to turns with her death and mourn the future they would have shared together.

Maternal death may conjure images of women bleeding to death during childbirth in an unsanitary environment. But in reality, maternal death continues to be an issue in the sterile, equipped hospitals in the United States of America.


Thau, L 2017, Wouldn’t it be Nice, audio podcast, Strangers, Radiotopia, PRX, 2 April. Available from [13 January 2017].

Tavernise, S, ‘Maternal Mortality Rate in U.S. Rise, Defying Global Trend, Study Finds’, New York Times, 21 September. Available from [2 April 2017].

Jazz Funerals

New Orleans is well known for its spectacle and pageantry of civic ritual, represented in festivals like Mardi Gras. The spectacle display is also seen in their funeral practices. Jazz funerals are used to celebrate the life of the lost community member in a fun spirted manner. The performance of Jazz Funerals is unique to New Orleans, specifically among the African American community. This tradition became popular in the late 1800s, early 1900s. The Jazz funeral generally consists of a brass band playing songs such as “When the Saints Go Marching In.” In addition to the brass band, the “second-line” parades behind the bass band consisting of friends and family marching from the church to the burial site. People can be dressed in costumes inspired by iconic figures with in the African American Carnival life. These aspects transform a sober time into one of celebration.

Jazz funerals are extremely ritualized. There is specific order to the events. Typically, before the funeral service there is a wake, of which the family and friends congregate before the service. After the wake the brass band accompanies the body on its way to the church for the funeral service followed by the second-line. When the service is completed the brass band and the second-line rejoin the body for the march to the burial site. The brass band leads the way. As part of the march the band and the second line strut and swing their bodies corresponding with the music creating a spectacle. In addition to the spirted display, individuals follow the Christian traditional practice of crying at the birth and rejoicing at death. As with everything about the funeral the rejoicing is done at specific moments and is not impromptu or undignified. The formal portion of the funeral follows the death rituals of the Christian religion.

While Jazz Funerals are a tradition, recently they are have become less common. People have opted for smaller funerals. A reason for this is the expense that it takes to perform this ritual. The cost of a Jazz funeral is high given the need of the theatrics. While performance of this ritual has diminished, its popularity still exists. This form of celebration has been adapted by other parts of the country due to migration and adaption of this tradition. The joyous form of Jazz funerals shows a different take on the somber American funerals. They put the fun back into funeral.



Work Sited:

Coclanis, A. and Peter A. Coclanis. (2005)” Jazz Funeral: A Living Tradition”. Southern Cultures. The University of North Carolina Press. V11, N2. 86-92

Secundy, M. (1989) “Coping with Words and Songs: The New Orleans Jazz Funeral.” Literature and Medicine. John Hopkins University Press. V8. 100-105