What is death? How the movie Coco challenged this reporter’s perception of mortality

The moment I stepped out from the theater, a question came to me: What is death?

Before I watched Coco, I would have answered: Death is when a person terminates their breath and when their heart stops pumping. These are, indeed, valid and precise definitions of death. However, what I hadn’t realized until I finished watching the film is that these definitions are too precise, that they restrain the scope of death to the physical level. But the ambiguity of mortality should lie far beyond.

Coco, a Pixar film written and directed by Lee Ukrinch — best known for Toy Story 2 and 3 as well as Finding Nemo — tells the story of Miguel, a Mexican boy who was accidentally transported to the land of the dead on the Day of the Dead. Along his journey, he experiences a fantastical night in the Land of the Dead, and through a series of exhilarating encounters, Miguel discovers an unexpected truth.

Perhaps death is not the termination of life, but a transition. Thus, like any other transition in life, death can also be a celebration.

The opening scene of the film drew me into the fascinating culture of the Mexican holiday Dia de los Muertos, or “Day of the Dead”. From the marigold petals to the village plaza, and from the intermittent Spanish dialogues to the jubilant melody of the music, festive elements knit together a tableau of splendid Mexican culture. While I had previously learned about this holiday in Spanish class, the openness and lightheartedness of how Mexicans regard death depicted in the movie appalled me initially.

As the Land of the Dead expanded panoramically in front of me, I found myself — unexpectedly — immersed in the mood of holiday. With his sorrow suspended and mourning muted, a feeling of joy and peace displaced the usual connections I have with death. Then a sense of uneasiness occupied me as a wild assumption struck my mind like a lightning: perhaps death is not the termination of life, but a transition. Thus, like any other transition in life, death can also be a celebration.

This is but one facet of death Coco unveiled to me.

The moment when Chicharrón, an unpopular guitarist in the Land of the Dead, faded away from the spiritual land had left an irrevocable imprint on my mind. As the characters softened their voices, the guitar music died away, and the past slowly withered into remote reminiscence, it was as if I could hear the shiver of death. Despite Chicharrón’s reluctance to disappear from the present, the loss of remembrance from his loved ones doomed his fate. Chicharrón told Miguel it was his second death, and his last. And when he embraced his guitar and death, his presence was erased — not from the Land of the Dead — but into oblivion.

I should have known the answer when Hector, a key figure and a passionate musician, sang:

Remember me

Though I have to say goodbye

Remember me

Don’t let it make you cry

For even if I’m far away

I hold you in my heart

I sing a secret song to you

Each night we are apart.

I should have known that it was the echo of my ponderance on death.

I should have known that the most meaningful and powerful death is the moment when no one is left in the living world to remember you.

That moment, when I stepped out of the theater, I was enshrouded not by the darkness of night or by the coldness of wind, but an inexplicable hollowness that devoured me from the inside. I did not know how or why it originated, nor did I know the correct stitch to mend it, but I heard a voice singing, “Remember me.” It was the resonance of memories.