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Power of art: Denise, heaven’s receptionist, best thing on TikTok

Kate Cohen

Do you ever wonder what heaven is like?

Well, I know, because I have seen it in a joyful, witty TikTok series featuring Denise, heaven’s receptionist.

Denise is a gum-chewing, keyboard-clacking office worker – in heaven – who answers the phone, greets new arrivals and gives out the WiFi password. She asks the dead what they want their ghost outfits to be and checks them back in from visits “downstairs.”

“Denise” was created by Taryn Delanie Smith, the current Miss New York and media personality and a former receptionist herself. In a white bathrobe standing in for celestial robes, using a pink plastic razor as a headset, she nails the details of office life: the strained politeness on the phone with a difficult client, the sotto voce comments to colleagues, the group coffee order, the faulty printer. Between calls, Denise gossips about Jackie O. bumping into Marilyn Monroe or complains that Paul Revere writes every email in all caps.

Playful as it is, Smith’s vision of heaven conveys serious ethical content, as all visions of heaven do. Do good deeds get you in? Do you have to believe certain things? Can you still go if you’ve done something wrong? What even is wrong?

In one of my favorite Denise videos, a woman calls to make sure that her granddaughter won’t be getting into heaven. Denise checks the file: “She’s a mother, she’s done a lot of good deeds. Things are looking good for her.” When the caller explains that her granddaughter has had a child out of wedlock, Denise says: “So, I hope you’re sitting down. Well, we don’t care.”

According to Smith’s ethical worldview, extramarital procreation is not immoral, but unkindness is. Denise denies an Angel Premium Plus upgrade for a woman who rejected her gay son.

“Right, so do you remember, when you said all those things to your son Ricky when he came out to you? Yeah, right. So, we didn’t like that. Yeah. Yeah. You didn’t earn any points up here.”

Also immoral: clerical greed. “So it says here you had a private jet,” Denise says, checking the file of a megachurch preacher who calls to request an upgrade. “That’s fun. Super fun. How’d you pay for the jet? Uh-huh. Okay. Okay. So I feel like. . . you know what I’m about to say.”

Using the concept of eternal judgment to criticize the clergy is a time-honored strategy. In “The Divine Comedy,” Dante Alighieri consigns to his fictional hell popes who got rich selling church favors and jobs. “Your avarice afflicts the world,” Dante’s pilgrim says, “trampling down the good and raising up the wicked.”

Denise doesn’t make pronouncements like that. She just explains the rules: “We appreciate the fact that you went every Sunday for 20 years. But you also made 48 Starbucks baristas cry and that does ding your credit up here.”

Smith’s moral code is refreshingly positive, ecumenical and uncomplicated. When I spoke to her recently, she told me that every religion she studied as a student at St. John’s University is “kind of saying something very similar, which is treat people well in your life. Do as much as you can, do as much good as you can with whatever you have.”

I don’t believe in an afterlife, but I believe in the power of art and the collective imagination. I believe in the power of strangers to console one another.

I believe in Denise.

Kate Cohen is a contributing columnist for The Washington Post.