The idea of an afterlife, or a life after this one that we have, is usually inculcated in us from childhood. For many raised in the Christian traditions, the afterlife consists of heaven and hell. For Roman Catholics, there is the addition of the intermediate state, purgatory, where those who die with minor sins are punished (or purified) accordingly before entering heaven, and limbo, which is sort of a neither heaven-or-hell state for those “innocent” souls that die before they have had a chance to be baptized — for example, babies who die during childbirth, and so on.
Growing up as a Protestant Christian, I only had to contend with heaven and hell but I learned about these from an early age as I had been exposed to Bible stories since before I had learned to read. My first real brush with this “reality” though was sometime when I was around 7. I was at home playing with the dogs in the early evening when my father arrived tooting the horn of our Volkswagen Beetle. He hurried into the house and told me to wash up and change quickly because I was coming with him.
When I asked him where we were going and why, he answered, “To the hospital — ama (grandmother) is about to go to heaven,” he said. Having never seen a dead person up close before, I think I was a little excited but also afraid. So I washed my hands from the stink of dogs and rushed out of my dirty clothes into something more decent and got into the car.
We arrived a little too late. My dad led me to the room where ama was and there were some relatives around her still form. My mom was beside the bed clutching ama’s arms and sobbing. A short while later, some orderlies came to cart the body away. I followed them out of the room and saw them cart the body down an inclined walkway into a room far beyond. My sister said, “That’s the morgue,” and when I asked what that was, she said, “That’s where they put the dead bodies.”
I was a bit detached from all of the emotions of the death and burial as I was not particularly close to ama. She had already been bedridden for as long (or as short) as I could remember, and my interactions with her were limited to greeting her or just hanging out in her room and playing with my toys in the extra bed that was there.
After that came references to the afterlife, of how she was already with angkong (grandfather) and a couple of my uncles, whom I never met as they had passed away before I was born. I only knew of them because there were large framed photos of them hanging in our study at home. But anyway, the important thing was they were in heaven now because they were Christians and believed in the saving power of Jesus Christ — which, in our belief system, was the only thing that could keep you from burning in hell, in everlasting torment.
So while I was growing up, my first notion of heaven was of this grand reunion of relatives, most of whom I have never met. And if ever any of my present relatives pass away, it was all right as we would all meet again someday. All that was fine for a short while, but then I asked my dad, “What else are we going to do in heaven?”
In my mind, I thought that meeting and greeting long lost and never known relatives have a certain limit and that to do that for all eternity would probably be very boring.
My dad just answered with, “Oh, you know, God has prepared a lot of things for us to do in heaven. We won’t just sit around doing nothing. There is much work and great work to be done.”
If we had that conversation today, I would probably have pressed him for a clearer answer, but at that time, he said it with a finality that my seven or eight year-old self accepted and understood that no further answers were forthcoming.
Originally published in Sunstar Davao.