Muse Reporting on the arts and culture

Wrestling with death

Media | Increasing interest in Día de Muertos reveals a cultural desire to reckon with mortality
by Mary Jackson
Posted 9/20/19, 12:35 pm

The sugar skull, an emblem of Mexican folk holiday Día de Muertos, or Day of the Dead, is this year’s must-have Halloween decor, plastered on succulent vases, wreaths, mugs, and pillowcases. Mattel recently announced its new Day of the Dead Barbie, adorned with a floral dress and a skull-painted face, and Nike released a tennis shoe in honor of the holiday, with colorful piping and ever-so-faint sugar skulls.

A few years ago, though, the holiday was practically unheard of. In 2017, Pixar released the movie Coco, a story about a Latino boy who leaves his family to visit his long-deceased ancestors in the land of the dead. The movie grossed more than $800 million globally. “In the two years since then, it has gone viral,” said Andrew Chesnut, an author and professor of religious studies at Virginia Commonwealth University. “Coco put Mexican death culture on the global scene.”

Mexicans and others in Latin America celebrate Day of the Dead at the start of November to coincide with the Catholic All Saint’s Day, a holiday to remember deceased loved ones. Day of the Dead goes further by imagining the spirits of ancestors awakening to visit the living. Observances include setting up altars, called ofrendas, with candles, treats, and mementos, including sugar skulls.

Coco was not the first movie to put the holiday, and Mexican death culture, in the spotlight. Spectre, the 2015 James Bond film, featured a fictional Day of the Dead parade in Mexico City so grandiose that the city decided to replicate it. The parade, now a tourist attraction, is in its third year.

Day of the Dead celebrations now take place in many U.S. states, and the holiday has established itself as part of the Halloween retail juggernaut. Its popularity brings together two trends: increasing Mexican cultural influence and a growing societal curiosity about mortality.

“We’ll continue to see more Day of the Dead shrines and altars … in places we wouldn’t expect,” Chestnut told me. “The more people are rethinking death, the more Mexican culture is becoming relevant.”

One Quito, Ecuador, tour company leads blindfolded visitors through the city’s oldest cemetery at nighttime. Guides in black-hooded capes ask them existential questions about life and death such as, “What are you doing so that you’re not forgotten?” Participants lie in empty cement niches in crypts as guides tell them to think about what their relatives will say on the day of their funeral.

Similar end-of-life musings appear in HBO’s new documentary Alternate Endings and more irreverently in Los Angeles funeral director Caitlin Doughty’s wildly popular YouTube videos called “Ask a Mortician.” One new app, called WeCroak, sends users five daily reminders that they will one day die.

While these outlets, part of what has been dubbed the “positive death movement,” encourage talking about and planning for death, few of them acknowledge any afterlife. Coco struck a chord for its natural cultural understanding that our souls live on after death. Instead of a self-empowered life, the movie emphasized “honoring our elders and cherishing the contributions they make to our lives,” WORLD movie reviewer Megan Basham wrote.

YouTube/Comedy Central Stand-up YouTube/Comedy Central Stand-up Shane Gillis

That’s not funny

NBC’s Saturday Night Live just fired one of its new hires before he could even appear on-air. Network executives did not know before selecting Shane Gillis for the late-night sketch show cast that the comedian had a history of using a racial slur against Asians. But they quickly learned when journalist Seth Simons (warning: link contains obscenity) tweeted a video of Gillis recording a podcast and saying just about every offensive thing imaginable about Chinese food, accents, and customs.

Through a spokesperson, SNL creator Lorne Michaels said the vetting process in hiring Gillis “was not up to our standard.” But Simons questioned the honesty of that statement, noting that Gillis’ “toxicity is a consistent, defining part of his comedy.” Simons called out not just Gillis, but “a whole class of comics that treat comedy as an ethical framework in which to say reprehensible things.”

The anti-Chinese remarks got the attention of Andrew Yang, an Asian American entrepreneur and Democratic presidential candidate. Yang, who has been the butt of some of Gillis’ jokes, offered to sit down with the comedian and talk out their differences. Through Twitter, Yang confirmed the two are due to meet soon. And he told those calling for Gillis’ head to settle down: “I think we have, as a society, become excessively punitive and vindictive concerning people’s statements and expressions we disagree with or find offensive. I don’t think people should be losing jobs unless it’s truly beyond the pale and egregious.” —Lynde Langdon

Associated Press/Photo by David Richard (file) Associated Press/Photo by David Richard (file) Ric Ocasek during the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Induction ceremony in Cleveland in 2018

Remembering a radio star

Ric Ocasek, whose band The Cars seemed omnipresent on radio in the late 1970s and early ’80s, died Sunday from heart disease. He was 75.

Ocasek, The Cars lead singer and guitarist, formed the band with his buddy Benjamin Orr, who played bass and sang, in Boston in 1976. Orr and Ocasek had an understated performance style for the era, playing on stage with almost military attention. Their music made its mark with head-bobbing tunes and catchy lyrics on songs such as “Just What I Needed,” “Good Times Roll,” and “My Best Friend’s Girl.”

The Cars released the uncharacteristically mournful ballad “Drive” in 1984, and Ocasek met his wife, model Paulina Porizkova, while recording the music video for that song. He had been married twice before and had two sons from each of his marriages. Porizkova announced the couple’s separation last year.

The Cars broke up in 1988 as Ocasek and Orr grew apart and Ocasek worked on his solo career, which never had as much success as The Cars. He went on to produce albums for younger bands including Weezer, No Doubt, and Bad Religion. The Cars were inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2018. —L.L.

Entertainment notes

  • Kanye West confirmed this week that his next album will be a gospel one.
  • Jeopardy! host Alex Trebek said he has to have chemotherapy again for pancreatic cancer after his “numbers went sky high.”
  • Someone suggested maybe—just maybe—there could be a Princess Bride remake, and fans lost their minds.
  • Some politicians and law enforcement suspect the government of President Nicolas Maduro of looting Venezuelan artwork to pay the bills. —L.L.
Mary Jackson

Mary is a graduate of the World Journalism Institute mid-career course and lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her husband and four children. Follow Mary on Twitter @mbjackson77

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  • Laura W
    Posted: Mon, 09/23/2019 10:35 pm

    Well, good for Andrew Yang--that should be an interesting conversation.