Remembering the Dead in Coco and the Hebrew Bible

What would it look like to interpret a biblical text from the perspective of film? How could we as Bible readers use film to inform our understanding of biblical concepts and themes? Biblical scholar Larry Kreitzer champions a way of reading which he calls reversing the hermeneutical flow that views film as an interpretive tool for reading the Bible. [1]

For most of us film is familiar, even native to our way of thinking. We talk about film, quote memorable lines and model our behaviour on characters. On the other hand, the Bible can seem foreign, distant and even obscure. So, when a film presents an idea that could help us understand this collection of texts that was written millennia ago… in languages we don’t speak… with categories we don’t have… maybe reversing the hermeneutical flow is worth a try.

With Halloween just behind us, we should explore some ‘spooky’ biblical themes through the lens of a recent film, Pixar’s 2017 film Coco.

As I see it, Coco presents ideas about the dead and the notion of ‘remembering’ in a way that helps us better understand concepts about the dead in the Hebrew Bible / Old Testament.

The story of Coco focuses on the Rivera family, who have worked as shoe-makers in a small Mexican village since the great patriarch of the family abandoned his wife and daughter to pursue music. Despite his family’s wishes, the main character Miguel dreams of one day becoming a famous musician like his great-great-grandfather. After some twists and turns, Miguel ends up in the land of the dead and must receive a blessing in order to return to the realm of the living. Miguel teams up with a fellow named Héctor (who we later discover is Miguel’s true great-great-grandfather), eventually returning to the land of the living and ‘saving the day’.

Coco is nothing short of an animated masterpiece and has been rightfully celebrated for all sorts of reasons. It is the first Pixar film to focus on Mexican culture; it champions family values without hiding behind traditional tropes; it draws attention to non-Judeo-Christian religious traditions in a way that is honouring and beautiful; it celebrates the pursuit of happiness; and, most importantly, it contains original musical numbers that have you humming along by the third verse.

So, what about the dead? For those raised in a traditional Anglophone household, many of the practices that appear in Coco may seem foreign. The family pays homage to their ancestors by offering food, drink and material goods on a table (ofrenda) set up during the holiday. The photographs of deceased family members are displayed on the ofrenda and are surrounded by candles and mortuary iconography. Héctor explains later in the film that the realm of the dead is a place that ‘runs on memories’. We also see that when the dead are forgotten they ‘fade away’ or die a ‘final death’. The picture that emerges is one where the living control the fate of the dead insofar as they ‘remember’ them and care for them.

In what way can Coco’s presentation of the dead inform our reading of the Hebrew Bible / Old Testament? First and foremost is the emphasis on the relationship between ‘remembering’ and the existence of the dead. Like Coco, the Hebrew Bible talks of a place that people go to when they die. It is variously referred to as Sheol or ‘the pit’. Unlike Coco, Sheol doesn’t seem very bright and cheery (Job 10.20-22). Nevertheless, several biblical texts indicate that the act of ‘remembering’ was significant for the dead. Like the photographs in Coco, ancient Israelites would ‘remember’ the dead by using memorial objects. For instance, Jacob sets up a memorial for Rachel after she dies (Genesis 35.19-20), and the text says it is there ‘to this day’. Similarly, Isaiah 56.5 talks of a memorial object that will be set up for the faithful eunuch in the temple of Yahweh and claims it will be ‘an everlasting name that shall not be cut off’. Again, like the photos on the ofrenda in Coco, the memorial for the eunuch will hopefully be there forever so he can be remembered.

In Coco, the act of remembering is more significant than just recalling some memory of a past loved one. Recall the scene where Héctor takes Miguel to the outskirts of town and introduces him to the ornery old man, Chicharrón. As we come to find out, Chicharrón has no living posterity to ‘remember’ him: he is forgotten. What follows is truly tragic: after listening to Héctor’s acoustic ballad, Chicharrón ‘fades away’. Héctor, in expositional fashion, explains to Miguel that his friend died ‘the final death’.

A handful of biblical texts suggest that ancient Israelites thought similarly about death, the after-life and ‘remembering’. For some time now, scholars have talked about the Israelite concept of the ‘second death’. Like the final death in Coco, the ‘second death’ is a death-after-death. Once in Sheol or ‘the pit’, one’s fate was not sealed—one could die again. Perhaps this is Job’s sentiment when he says,

‘Oh that you would hide me in Sheol, that you would conceal me until your wrath be past, that you would appoint me a set time, and remember me!’ (Job 14.13, NRSV).

It seems that Job imagines himself in Sheol, yet he is still susceptible to Yahweh’s wrath. I think it is safe to say that to be in Sheol is to be dead. So, if Job is imagining himself dead in Sheol, it seems plausible that his fear is directly related to the notion of the ‘second death’. That is precisely why Job wants to be ‘remembered’. By ‘remembering’ him, he will stay ‘alive’ in Sheol. It is better to die once and be remembered than to be forgotten and die twice.

Isaiah 26.13-14 is a passage that showcases some poor unfortunate souls that are not as lucky as Job:

‘O Lord our God, other lords besides you have ruled over us but we will profess your name alone. The dead do not live; ghosts do not rise. You have dealt with them and destroyed them; you have eliminated all memory of them’. [2]

Clearly here is an example of the ‘second’ or ‘final’ death in the Hebrew Bible. Verse 14 explicitly describes the destruction of ‘people’ after death, and significantly there is a reference to memory. The writer praises Yahweh for destroying the dead, for extinguishing the ghosts. Yahweh has removed the possibility of their remembrance.

The question is, how does one destroy the memory of the dead? In Coco the preservation of the dead is achieved primarily through the photograph that is placed on the ofrenda. This is why Héctor goes to such great lengths in the film to get his photograph in the land of the living. Without a physical memorial that represents the person, they cannot be remembered. The ancient Israelites seem to be similar in this regard. I already mentioned the memorials of Rachel and the eunuch, but other biblical texts talk about ‘names’ as a manifestation of the person.

In the ancient world, names were considered an ontological extension of the self. If you inscribed your name on an object, you were ontologically connected to that object in some mysterious way. Therefore, when someone died, it was imperative that the name of the deceased was placed on the memorial object. In essence, the writing of the name was the Israelite way of placing a photo on an ofrenda. So, when biblical texts require that the Israelites ‘cut off the names’ of their enemies (Deut. 12.3), the sense is that ‘cutting off a name’ is the same thing as destroying a photo on the ofrenda. In some sense, cutting off someone’s name was the same thing as ‘wiping out their memory’, thus effectively inflicting the ‘final death.’

I think many of these themes are present in the brief story about Absalom mentioned in 2 Samuel 18.18:

‘Now Absalom in his lifetime had taken and set up for himself the pillar that is in the King’s Valley, for he said, ‘I have no son to keep my name in remembrance’. He called the pillar after his own name and it is called Absalom’s monument to this day’. (RSV)

Recall in Coco that one of the roles of the living is to set up an ofrenda for the dead as part of the ‘remembering’ process. Because Chicharrón had no one to set his up, he died the ‘final death’, with the same scenario at work in Héctor’s case. In ancient Israel, it was the job of the son (or wider family) to set up a memorial for the deceased. Yet, like his Pixar friends, Absalom has no posterity. So, Absalom gets creative; he sets up his ofrenda before he dies to ensure he has one. Absalom knows that if he does not have someone to ‘keep his name in remembrance’ (i.e., set up a photograph on an ofrenda) he will be forgotten. And, as we have seen, being forgotten doesn’t end well. Coco teaches us something valuable about the Absalom story. He doesn’t erect the monument out of hubris but due to a lack of posterity. Absalom does not want to end up like Chicharrón.

Using film to better understand the Bible may be deemed anachronistic, sacrilegious or ironic. Many people think of the Bible as the fountainhead of modern Western art, including film. For some, reading film into the Bible is like putting the cart before the horse. But I disagree. As Coco illustrates, film has a lot to offer as a hermeneutical tool for understanding the Bible. Film can help us visualise the Bible, to fill in the gaps via our imagination. By employing this hermeneutical reversal, let us place film in dialogue with the Bible to discover new meanings or clarify old ones.

 

Further Reading 

Elizabeth Bloch-Smith, Judahite Burial Practices and Beliefs about the Dead (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1992).

Elizabeth Bloch-Smith, The Cult of the Dead in Judah: Interpreting the Material Remains’, Journal of Biblical Literature 111 (1992): 213-224.

Christopher B. Hays, Death in the Iron Age II and in First Isaiah (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2011).

Theodore J. Lewis, Death Cult Imagery in Isaiah 57’, Hebrew Annual Review 11 (1987): 267-284.

Matthew Suriano, A History of Death in the Hebrew Bible (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018).

Klaas Spronk, Beatific Afterlife in Ancient Israel and in the Ancient Near East (Kevelaer: Butzon & Bercker, 1986).  

In Remembrance of Me: Feasting with the Dead in the Ancient Middle Easted. Virginia Rimmer Herrmann and J. David Schloen (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014).

 


[1] Larry J. Kreitzer, Gospel Images in Fiction and Film: On Reversing the Hermeneutical Flow (London: Sheffield Academic Press, 2002).

[2] For translation see Christopher B. Hays, Death in the Iron Age II and in First Isaiah (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2011), 323-326.

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