Taking my kid to see a movie about the afterlife was admittedly morbid. But, like a puppy in a field full of squirrels, I was distracted by how amazingly beautiful the film looked in the previews. So I started processing my thoughts about death, black folks and death, how death is just not a welcome discussion during the holidays, and more. I found that if you remove the restraints of assimilation, it is undeniable that black folks “do death well”. We have second lines following funeral processions, grand repasts, long tearful services and are generally accepting of grief as an extensive process that is best endured with the support of family, friends and occasionally liquor. We’ve transformed gloomy funerals into joyous “home going celebrations.” Some of our favorite R&B and hip hop hits are about mourning and death–Bone Thugs “Crossroads “, Tupac’s “How Long Will They Mourn Me?” and DRS’s “Gangsta Lean.” But what black Americans and non-melanated citizens don’t do is death mixed with holidays.
Holidays can be tough, but they’re especially difficult when they are coupled with feelings of loss and grief. We celebrate most holidays adjacent of loss and death. It has no place in our times of merriment. It is ominous to even consider. Hence, Disney Pixar Studios new film CoCo is quite courageous to place death so squarely in the center of its premiere holiday release. Coco, tells the story of a young Mexican boy named Miguel as he traverses the land of the dead back to the land of the living. This quest occurs during the popular but often misunderstood Dia de los Muertos (day of the dead)—a centuries old Mexican holiday that honors ancestors that have transitioned to the afterlife and welcomes them to commune with the living for a day. During his quest back home he is assisted by a community of ancestors, many that he recognizes as from photos on his family’s oferenda (altar with pictures of deceased family members; place to offer prayers and gifts). But what was most interesting was that the afterlife was full of…LIFE. There were planes to living in the spirit realm that were wholly contingent upon how well you are remembered by those who are living. Paul, every black Christian’s favorite apostle, literally told us, there was levels to this afterlife shit when he told of the story of a man he knew caught up to the third heaven. Miguel not only discovers spirits and ancestors occupying different realms of existence, but also a final death that occurs when you are no longer remembered.
It was a deep movie. It pulled on all three of my emotions in a way that I had not imagined. And while it felt like viewing this film with my daughter would bring about endless questions about death and what happens when you die, I felt thankful that she’d witnessed this very intricate story about how the short answer is…a lot. Many of my friends and family who have been bereaved know that I believe that our loved ones graduate from being present and limited in the flesh to present and boundless in the spirit; that they transition to a place just beyond but still very near that we can access and seek help to guide us through the rest of our living days.
How do you process grief and loss during the holidays? What traditions and beliefs help you make sense of death when you miss your loved ones that have already transitioned?
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