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“The White Rose of Paradise” From Dante’s Divine Comedy, “Paradiso” by Theophilia

His name is Miguel Ruiz. He died last week in the beautiful island paradise of Coron after accidentally stepping on a venomous stonefish. It was a freak accident that according to the news could have been prevented had the tour guides accompanying Miguel and his boyfriend Travis Millard been trained to respond to such emergency situations. Instead, as Millard recounted, the tour guides looked on as Miguel was slowly constricted by the fish’s poison, his breathing muffled by the venom’s effects, his mouth covered in froth as the color of his skin was sucked out by an imminent death. Millard helplessly tried to resuscitate his partner while baffled onlookers watched in horror. When the guides and some boatmen finally decided to help out, it was too late. The ambulance which brought Miguel to the nearest hospital was just as ill-equipped to respond to the emergency. No first aid or preventive measure was applied to save the life of the young man. It was, as Millard described, a “taxi of death.”

Miguel Ruiz was twenty-five.

Here was a perfectly healthy young man enjoying a vacation with his boyfriend in one of the most beautiful places in the world and all of the sudden paradise quite literally turned into hell for the two. While we never know when we will die, we too never think something morbid could happen in a place so breathtaking and tranquil. Death by plane crashes or vehicular accidents, heart attack or lung cancer, are sometimes easier to swallow, to make sense of, because when we take the plane or car, eat our hearts out or smoke our lungs to incineration, we have accepted the probability something could go wrong, that the plane’s engine could fail, that our bodies could betray us. But on the beach, admiring Nature’s beauty – how can one possibly think of death?

Travis Millard took to the news to express his outrage over the failure of Coron’s tourism board to ascertain the safety of its tourists. As a result, the Department of Tourism is now investigating the incident. Miguel Ruiz’s friends, on the other hand, took to social media to grieve. Some posted their last goodbyes on Miguel’s own Instagram account or tagged him on Twitter with pictures of them at the wake. Even those who did not know Miguel, deeply moved and affected by an unthinkable misfortune which befell on a young man, offered their condolences

“Rest in peace Miguel. An angel will now be watching over us. You’re now in heaven.”

Strangely enough, Miguel’s last tweet was the word “Heaven”. His friends took it as a premonition of his own death, and a reassurance Miguel is already at peace in the real “paradise”. After all, he seemed to be a swell young man – kind-hearted, full of vigour and goodness. And good men, they say, die young. It would be foolish to think otherwise.

But do they–as countless thoughts and condolences are poured in social media–always go to heaven? Or to better phrase it, when a loved one dies why do people always assume the person is automatically at peace in heaven? Indeed, Miguel’s death is tragic and I write this not to take away anything from his life. Instead, I pose this question against the penchant of men and women who have lost their loved ones to claim their dearly departed as at peace.

In interviews, widowed celebrities cry with the conviction “I know he is in heaven watching over me,” so soon after their husbands die. Children are taught by their parents to believe their grandparents are with God, at peace, never mind the faults and defects of their deceased, grumpy old folks. Others go as far as thinking that when someone dies, he or she becomes an angel who watches over those left behind. I am confused by such certainty. I am baffled by this belief in a convenient passage from death to paradise. I do not doubt the possibility of the person entering heaven. However, I do doubt the immediacy of a soul’s apparent entry into eternal paradise, as if those of us left on earth are so sure that the goodness of a person is enough to gain entry into God’s throne the moment they expire.

For if you believe in heaven and angels, then logically you must believe in a God. And if you believe in a God of heaven, then you must obviously believe in his Supremacy, his Infinity, and his Perfection – for quite surely, any concept of heaven cannot be less than perfection. And truly, a God so perfect and encompassing must have his own set of criteria for any creature to gain entry into his dwelling place. What makes us believe that when we die, no judgments will be made and the soul automatically enjoys the eternal peace of heaven? Shouldn’t God, who created heaven, have his say, if not, have only his say to follow as to where our souls end up?

The great C.S. Lewis eloquently expressed his reservation in believing a soul is immediately at peace after death. In his book A Grief Observed he writes on the death of his wife:

They tell me H. is happy now, they tell me she is at peace. What makes them so sure of this? I don’t mean that I fear the worst of all. Nearly her last words were, ‘I am at peace with God.’ She had not always been. And she never lied. And she wasn’t easily deceived, least of all, in her own favour. I don’t mean that. But why are they so sure that all anguish ends with death? More than half the Christian world, and millions in the East, believes otherwise. How do they know she is ‘at rest?’ Why should the separation (if nothing else) which so agonizes the lover who is left behind be painless to the lover who departs?

While I cannot be so bold to question the character of Miguel Ruiz–for he must have been a good man–I wouldn’t be in such haste to assume he is in heaven. Nor will I assume the same for anyone who dies even if its family member or a close friend. The idea is simply too simple to accept. We humans are so imperfect and so flawed I don’t think we’re ever given a free pass to paradise. I’d like to think we earn it; fight for it; go through hell to taste it. For such a short time on earth, it is only logical, if one believes in a heaven, that we are held accountable for our actions if we were to arrive at our preferred final destination.

And this uncertainty is what grips me when someone I do know personally dies. Young or old – the sorrow of losing a loved one is magnified with the thought he or she is in some place I don’t quite know of, and will only know of when I also pass away. The uncertainty is just as painful as grief but I wouldn’t have it any other way. I remember a lecture by Charlie Kaufman he gave to screenwriters wherein he says:

It’s weird to be a human. We get to think about things, we get to wonder. It seems like quite a privileged position in the universe. And I wouldn’t give it up for certainty because when you’re certain you stop being curious. And here’s the one thing I know about the thing you’re certain about; you’re wrong.

And it is true what Mr. Kaufman says. Maybe Miguel Ruiz is in heaven. Maybe he isn’t. Maybe my aunt is. Maybe my grandmother is in some state of limbo. Maybe some murderers actually go to heaven. Maybe some priests go to hell. Maybe there is no heaven after all. One is never sure. There is nothing we can confidently assume to be for certain, except ironically, death.

Her past anguish. How do I know that all her anguish is past? I never believed before—I thought it immensely improbable—that the faithfulest soul could leap straight into perfection and peace the moment death has rattled in the throat. It would be wishful thinking with a vengeance to take up that belief now. H. was a splendid thing; a soul straight, bright, and tempered like a sword. But not a perfected saint. A sinful woman married to a sinful man; two of God’s patients, not yet cured. I know there are not only tears to be dried but stains to be scoured. The sword will be made even brighter.

—C.S. Lewis