Biblical or Theologica support for Day of the Dead expressions

Hello, A Protestant friend of mine took his grandson to see the movie, Coco. He mentioned the theme of The Day of the Dead in the movie. He would like to understand how this seemingly strange celebration has Christian theological foundation. I can imagine this to him looks pagan (e.g., the altars, the skull face paintings, etc). Where can I find a biblical and theological sound explanation for this devotion expression to explain to a Protestant? Thanks.

An example of the praiseworthy practice of praying for and offering sacrifices on behalf of the dead can be found in the Old Testament in 2 Maccabees 12:39-45. In the New Testament, there is the 2 Timonty 1:18 prayer for Onesiphorus, who seems to have died.

It has more of a cultural rather than theological meaning…although closely tied to All Souls Day, so the relationship is kind of one of those “6 degrees” thing.

Thanks. Any priests, professional apologists or theologians out there that can expand?

First off, neither Coco nor The Book of Life have anything to do with Mexican Catholicism. They are amusing animation movies. Why the heck would your friend think otherwise? Did he expect The Nightmare Before Christmas to be a historical presentation about All Saints’ Eve and St. Nicholas of Myra?

Second, if you want to understand the All Souls’ Day/Day of the Dead customs in Mexico, you want to look at Spanish and colonial Catholicism during the 1600’s, 1700’s, etc. Very little of this stuff is of native origin; it just has special Mexican expressions.

Candy skulls and skeletons are the same kind of “memento mori” imagery that is found all over Europe, particularly in medieval “dance of death” paintings in churches and cemeteries. The main message is a reminder that you are going to die, and that you should look after your soul. The Day of the Dead message is that you should pray for the holy souls in the Purgatory part of Heaven, and that you should remember with gratitude that they are praying for you.

Eating and distributing candy and goodies is also meant to remind people to pray for the dead; it’s a teaching tool for kids, particularly. In Germany, it’s the job of Catholic godparents.

Taking picnics to cemeteries on All Souls’ Day is a way of socializing with one’s dead family that goes back to pagan Roman times. (Although the Church outlawed a few features of such meals.) It is found all over Europe. Germans do weird things like taking giant stick candy and setting them up in front of graves like flowers, or making giant pretzels on sticks for the same thing. Countries differ on how much humor and whimsy is used (to cheer people up who are grieving), vs. how much serious and dark decoration and food is done.

Since Mexico is a warmer country, all night vigils of prayer at the cemetery or church are more popular – but even in cold countries like Poland, people have been known to do it.

Same thing with making temporary altars and decorations, which are associated in Europe and the Americas with all sorts of processions and festivals (including All Souls’ Day).

So yes, Coco and The Book of Life are basically the same sort of thing as Tolkien’s “Leaf by Niggle.” It’s just that Tolkien knew what he was writing, and Hollywood didn’t.

Note: Just as neopagans and Wiccans in the US have tried to claim Halloween as their own, you sometimes see Mexican nationalists or tribalists trying to claim that the Day of the Dead is Aztec or Mayan. I still haven’t seen anything convincing. It’s all European all the time, until you get to really local customs. (The guys who jump off poles with ropes tied to their ankles really are doing Native American stuff. But that’s not in October.)

If we were really talking about a pagan Mexican land of the dead, we’d be looking at the land of Xibalba. Xibalba is not a happy Mexican town full of skeletons. It’s a land full of rivers of blood, jaguars tearing you to bits, and evil head-tearing-off vampire bats, where any sort of feast or party is a trap set to destroy you. (And yes, The Book of Life sorta alluded to that, but not really. The Book of Life also sorta alluded positively to the gruesome Santa Muerte cult, and I bet the writers are sorry they did that now.)

The Mexican story of the hero twins (which is actually a sort of John Barleycorn story about making cacao into chocolate, and how it relates to cornfields) will tell you all about the Lords of Xibalba and their many tortures. If Coco had anything like that, I would be surprised.

A good article about Xibalba, the underworld that was the Mayan afterlife. Its name meant “place of fear.”

Thank you for taking time to explain this to me in further detail Mintaka. Also, thanks to the others that responded.

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