“Hi thanks for waiting. Welcome to heaven. What would you like your ghost outfit to be?”
Not the greeting most of us expect to receive in the afterlife; but this is not St. Peter at the Pearly Gates. No, this is Denise the “heaven receptionist.”
Gum-smacking, keyboard clacking and wise-cracking, Denise answers the phones, “777 thanks for calling heaven. Do you know your party’s extension?” and staffs the front desk, “Stand behind the yellow line, please, until I call you,” for the heavenly host. From printer problems to rude residents, Denise manages the monotony of heavenly office life with a smile and a wink.
Viewed on TikTok more than 37 million times and at least 22 million times on other platforms, Denise is the brainchild of Taryn Delanie Smith, known online as @taryntino21. Smith came up with the idea for Denise while in the shower, which is why she’s wearing a towel on her head and a bathrobe in the videos.
“I thought, ‘Oh, I should change,’ and then I thought, ‘This is probably what they wear in heaven,” and so I just kept going and people loved it!”
A pink disposable razor makes a convincing telephone headset. “It’s meant to be fun, and funny and silly and absurd,” Smith explains. “I think the best part of life is finding joy and silliness in as many moments as you can, and I think the afterlife is going to be the same.”
When she’s not playing Denise, Taryn Smith is fulfilling her obligations as Miss New York 2022, so it’s no wonder her character reflects the best stereotypes of New York City’s residents.
“You’d be perfect for a reboot of The Nanny,” remarked one follower about Denise’s Queens accent. “I love New Yorkers,” Smith said. “Their way of kindness is they’re gonna be real with you, they’re gonna be honest with you, but they’re gonna take care of you, they’re gonna protect you.”
Smith herself worked as a receptionist to pay her way through graduate school and draws on this experience when crafting her skits about the afterlife’s difficult clients. In one skit, Denise gossips to her off-screen office mate Miss Stacy, about a guest causing trouble “downstairs” on earth. “She keeps on pulling the curtains down that her ex-husband’s new wife keeps putting up. I told her, ‘Listen, I think it’s hilarious.’ Ha! ‘But I’m gonna have to mark your file with Poltergeist.’ The new wife is like 26 years old. Yeah. Listen, only my boss can judge. Ha! I mean I judge a little.”
Denise is not unlike Dante’s guide, Beatrice, in the Paradiso portion of his Divine Comedy. But while Beatrice led the poet through the spheres of heaven, Denise hands out welcome packets and directs guests to the Margarita Room. “Betty White’s already in there! She’s in there all day!”
It’s worth noting that Denise is an African American woman, the lowest-paid demographic in the United States, but the demographic doing the majority of service jobs. However, in heaven, Denise has decision-making authority and she reports directly to God. When a resident demands to speak to her manager, Denise retorts, “I’ll get the manager for you,” snaps her fingers, disappears and then reappears laughing, “This is not a Denny’s. OK?” Positive representation matters, even in humorous depictions of heaven.
Smith stages her skits in front of a green screen image of celestial clouds, but she imagines heaven’s waiting area more like the DMV: “There is nobody more efficient than a New York City DMV worker. They’re gonna put you in your place, they’re gonna get the job done, and they’re gonna give you a little extra at the end.”
When a guest asks if Rasputin is there in heaven, Denise responds, “Rah who? Rasputin? Oh honey, I don’t even have to look that up. No, he’s not up here. But listen, I can help locate him for you. Looks like he’s someone’s sleep paralysis demon in Michigan. I can get you the name, no problem.”
Rasputin’s not the only historical figure featured in Taryn Smith’s TikToks. Shakespeare sends Denise a lengthy email, to which she replies, “I’m not reading all that, it’s like eight pages long!” Anne Boleyn “shows up carrying her head. So dramatic!” While George Washington makes it “in” by the skin of his wooden teeth, “I was honest with him, I said, ‘You’re in, but you owned slaves.’ No! ‘Cuz he wasn’t expecting to see all this (gestures to her face) up here! Talk about awkward!” Denise also denies Napoleon’s request to haunt French President Emmanuel Macron when her computer screen lists the emperor’s motivations as “questionable.” “How he got in here baffles me. He’s got such a complex,” she muses.
Denise is not the only one baffled. Fully 75% of adults in the U.S. believe in heaven but disagree about who will go there. Almost 40% think individuals who don’t believe in God will make it to heaven, while 32% think only believers are admitted past the pearly gates. A similar percentage (31%) said their religion is the only faith guaranteeing eternal life in heaven, while 58% of Americans said there are many religions that led there.
Just who’s “in” and who doesn’t “make the cut” in Smith’s heaven no doubt rankles some. Smith’s soteriology favors those who are kind over those who are cruel. Denise informs one guest, who wishes to upgrade to the “Angel Premium Plus” package, that the upgrade costs 7,899 good deeds and “you’re short 7,899 good deeds.” When the caller protests, citing their faithful church attendance, Denise responds, “That’s so great you went every Sunday, but you did make 48 Starbucks baristas cry and that does ding your credit up here.” Another resident is denied her angel upgrade because of the horrible things she said to her son when he came out to her, “You didn’t earn any points up here,” Denise explains.
Some might say Smith’s imagining of heaven is highly “unbiblical,” but her version of heaven is one where the mighty are cast down and the lowly are lifted up as in Luke 1:51-53.
Denise refuses to upgrade a megachurch pastor who used church donations to finance his private jet. The offense is so obvious, “It’s one of those calls that could have been an email,” she complains to her invisible coworker.
A grandmother phones the front desk to make sure her granddaughter does not get into heaven because the young woman had a child out of wedlock. “I hope you’re sitting down,” cackles Denise. “We don’t care. Ha!”
A reoccurring character in Smith’s skits who seemingly doesn’t belong in heaven is Tammy the Vengeful Ghost. Taryn portrays Tammy using a demon filter to distort her features and give her red glowing eyes. “Before anyone asks how Tammy the Vengeful Ghost made it into heaven, you don’t know what is in her heart. She is just in her spooky era,” Smith jokes. Viewer Betty Dupre commented, “Tammy is everything!! There’s hope I’ll still get to heaven!”
In Smith’s heaven, residents can apply for a day pass to visit earth. When Tammy uses hers to “terrorize a suburban family in their home,” Denise is forced to suspend her pass. “I keep on vouching for you. See how this makes my job harder? If it were up to me, do whatever you want, you know? You gotta play by their rules. I’m just doing my job.” Tammy the ghost is unfailingly polite during the exchange, “Right, this must put you in a weird position. I totally get it. I’m sorry.” Perhaps Tammy made it to heaven because “she’s polite to customer service,” wrote one TikTok follower.
When asked by a viewer, “How does Tammy keep making it back up?” Smith commented, “Listen, God works in mysterious ways. Forgiveness is mysterious too.”
“There might be a tiny bit of Tammy in all of us and we’re cheering her on.”
In a recent video, heaven is hiring and Tammy, wearing a jaunty scarf tied around her ghoulish neck, submitted her resume to an incredulous Denise. Fans were thrilled at the development. One commented, “We are not our mistakes. Tammy, you can do this! We have faith in you.” Another added, “I think there might be a tiny bit of Tammy in all of us and we’re cheering her on.”
Viewers are watching Denise the Heaven Receptionist for more than just laughs. Smith’s TikTok has become a way for followers to process their own grief as they imagine loved ones interacting with her characters in heaven.
“I could have never anticipated what this was going to mean to people. I originally wanted to just make people laugh,” she said. “But at the same time so many people have let me know this has really helped them cope with the idea, the inevitable truth of passing, and to think that their family members have a friend upstairs. And I do believe that. I believe they do.”
A 2021 Pew survey on the afterlife found 65% of American adults believe they will be reunited with loved ones in heaven. Smith has created personalized videos for some of her followers who are waiting to be reunited with family members. For a viewer whose infant daughter died, Denise coos over how precious the baby is and tells her that her mother will join her someday. She then directs the angels escorting the child to take her to the Heavenly Meadow where her grandfather is waiting.
In a TikTok for another grieving mother who contacted her, Smith pretends that Nat, a 23-year-old nonbinary person, is Denise’s new intern in reception helping to answer Prayer Mail. The two make a video message for Nat’s mother assuring her that Nat is happy in heaven. She says: “Nat is somebody so full of love just like you said, and love begets love. Nat is such a loving and caring and wonderful person because you are too, and that’s how you loved them.”
Grieving daughter Jennifer Tavenier asked Taryn Smith to make a video of Denise greeting her mother, Gerry. Smith’s face is full of joy at “Gerry’s” arrival as though she has been eagerly looking forward to meeting heaven’s newest resident standing just out of frame, “You are so loved, I’m already getting Prayer Mail for you,” says Denise as she hands her a welcome packet and gives her the Wi-Fi password, “Cloud9, capital C. I know. It’s been like that forever, not very creative. Who’s going to steal it right?” Denise then invites Gerry to grab a salad with her. “You’re gonna love this place,” she says. “They all know me.”
One viewer made her own TikTok about the profound effect watching the Gerry post had on her, saying, “This video just destroyed me, I’m telling you, and my mom isn’t even Gerry! We lost my mom in May … and I know psychologically what this video has done, and it’s got nothing to do with my mother, it’s about me, I just (have) an image of you greeting my mom, and I know how comforted she would be having someone like you greeting her in heaven. And I know it’s just TikTok, (but) thank you.”
Deborah Davis, writing in Psychology Today, says: “What Denise does is offer our minds the kinds of stories and thoughts that comfort us, rather than worry or scare us. She is essentially helping our brains create a neural map of a world where love, humor and generosity prevail.”
The demands of modern society don’t allow for time to grieve. Those who are grieving often find themselves isolated and alone, especially if they are among the quarter of Americans who have no religious affiliation. The COVID pandemic not only left potentially 65 million Americans grieving, but the restrictions on in-person gatherings made processing that grief difficult. Families held funerals online or with few attendees, hugs and physical comfort were off limits, and people’s opportunities to make new memories and build new connections were severely limited.
The comments sections of Smith’s videos provide a communal space for those who are grieving to receive comfort and give comfort to one another.
A viewer wrote, “My 58-year-old sister, Tiffiny, passed. I’m not doing well. Please let me know she’s there and OK.” Others responded with encouraging and entertaining posts featuring their own loved ones interacting with Tiffiny.
Smith’s heaven is not static. Eternal life there is just that, life.
Smith’s heaven is not static. Eternal life there is just that, life. The dearly departed get their nails done with Marilyn Monroe, grab a spot next to Susan B. Anthony at the pool, join Betty White for trivia night, lunch with Martin Luther King Jr., and attend concerts by Whitney Houston. Family and friends left behind also can imagine their loved ones pursuing the lives they might have led had their earthly ones not been cut short.
“Denise is offering her viewers a heartfelt narrative that is therapeutic — a narrative that assures us that our deceased loved ones are welcomed into a place where everyone thrives,” Davis explained.
Smith’s TikTok videos also help individuals cope with their own mortality.
“This skit weirdly made my fear of the afterlife lessen,” said Saul Furst. Viewer Caitlin Bradley wrote, “I’ve always had such a fear of death, but the thought of possibly meeting someone like you in the afterlife is such a comforting thought.” Another follower wrote about confronting her own death, “It’s inevitable and scary but imagining Denise waiting for me makes it palatable.”
Should people be focusing on a fictional front desk receptionist rather than Jesus for their understanding of heaven? Perhaps not, but Denise is a relatable and familiar figure. In the age of cubicle farms and the service economy, everyone has worked with or encountered a “Denise.” It’s helpful to have a familiar face along to explore the unknown, even if that face is fictional.
Davis explained: “Why do we benefit from this narrative? Because we don’t really know what happens after we die.”
Smith’s TikTok videos are transforming the ways people think about death and changing lives for the better in the here and now. Belief in heaven and positive views of the afterlife correlate with greater happiness and satisfaction in this one. Her viewers agree, with one summarizing: “From what started as probably a little skit is now helping and healing so many people. … I feel like this is the most important content on TikTok. This kind of content saves people.”