It took the brilliant Pixar film “Coco” for me to figure out what was missing: the dancing skeletons, the flower-adorned grave sites, the altars crowded with candles and framed photos of deceased loved ones. I’m talking about Dia de los Muertos, and though the celebration of this Mexican holiday is already established in Latin corners of the United States, I’m proposing we go full throttle and declare the Day of the Dead an official American holiday.
Here’s why I’m stumping for the idea. I’m a 62-year-old journalist, first diagnosed with cancer in 2014. As I’ve written in The Times on other occasions, despite surgery, chemo and radiation, my disease metastasized in 2015. When three different doctors told me I would live six months or “a yearish,” I began to think a lot about death.
Until then, like most Americans, I’d avoided the subject. Death was something to run away from — a giant negative, a dark mystery, the end of everything. Pain and grief seemed all that awaited any consideration, forced or otherwise, of what Shakespeare called “the undiscovered country.” It doesn’t take departed psychologist Ernest Becker, who won the 1974 Pulitzer Prize for his book “The Denial of Death,” to recognize that most of us will do anything to ignore mortality until it’s coming straight for us or a loved one.
For Becker, this kind of avoidance “pervades human culture” and “is one of the deepest sources of intolerance, aggression, and human evil” on Earth. I’ve learned the hard way to stop with the death denial. And that’s where “Coco” enters into it.
In the 2017 film, 12-year-old Miguel embarks on a quest in the land of the dead to find his long-deceased great-grandfather. Along the way, the boy overcomes obstacles and finds truth in the least likely places.
Miguel’s adventure occurs over the multi-day holiday (beginning on Oct. 31, Halloween, All Hallow’s Eve) and reveals what this saints’ day is really about — keeping the dead “alive” by celebrating the links between our lives in the present and the lives of those we honor from the past. Instead of relegating death to outre, gruesome images as in the zombie stories Americans love so much, the Day of the Dead acknowledges, joyfully, that an end is coming for us all.
As someone who sees her end on a clearer timeline than most, I’ve found my own very personal answer to the question of what gives meaning to life. But imagine millions of Americans — including those not facing death on so quick a calendar — annually tuning in to just how finite an ingredient each of us is in the grand continuum of life, marking the reality that no matter our divisions we are all bound together by our mortality.
Dia de los Muertos is a celebration, but it’s no frat party. It’s got a deeply spiritual side. In Mexico, families pay their respects to the souls of the dead with parades, picnics around grave sites, all-night vigils, prayer gatherings and lots and lots of music. Some families build altars — ofrendas — to the dead, heaped with mementos, the deceased’s favorite food and drink, and photos. They tell stories of lives lived and loved ones gone. Religion plays a role, but the festivities are not really about belief in an afterlife. Ultimately, the Day of the Dead is a fiesta of what ties together the living and the dead.
Formally expanding this beloved Mexican holiday into the United States could be a repentant bow to a country whose relations with America are at an all-time low thanks to border walls, ethnic slurs, family separations and cynical immigration politics. And it’s not just that country we’d be acknowledging — parts of Africa, China and Japan also reserve a special day each year to honor their dead. Towns and cities all over the West already make room for the holiday with sugar skulls and papier-mâché skeletons, pan de muertos and ofrendas laid out among the headstones in cemeteries, in museum galleries and in parks.
There would be resistance in Washington but, in the end, revels would win.
Thanks to good luck, a great doctor and immunotherapy, my own proximity to death has been stretched to a longer time horizon. Like other cancer patients who have responded to new medicines, I’m grateful to have already lived several more years than my husband, family and friends could possibly have imagined. But more than most people, I can never forget that death is coming.
What a wonder it would be if dying people — all of us — exited life knowing that every year the connection of life to death would be glorified rather than mourned or feared. An American Dia de los Muertos might encourage us to stop the denial, reckon with the end of our days, and fully recognize the imperfect amount of time that connects us all.