This article is an excerpt from the Shortform summary of "The Five People You Meet In Heaven" by Mitch Albom. Shortform has the world's best summaries of books you should be reading.
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Is it true that death is just the beginning? Is there really an afterlife?
In The Five People You Meet in Heaven, main character Eddie finds out. The book is a work of fiction, but grapples with the idea that death is just the beginning and more.
Death Is Just the Beginning
When Eddie dies, it is sudden. Unhappy in his life, Eddie’s journey in the afterlife helps him make peace with his death, and his life. In his death, he realizes that death is just the beginning, and that he was, and always will be, connected to others.
One day, at Ruby Pier Amusement Park, a man named Eddie dies. Like most endings, Eddie’s death is just the beginning, even though he doesn’t know it. It is Eddie’s 83rd birthday.
Eddie spends his last day working at Ruby Pier Amusement Park, like he has for most of his life. His job is to maintain and fix the park’s many rides, attractions, and games. He always wanted to leave Ruby Pier. But after he came back from getting injured in the war, he felt stuck in his old life there.
Eddie hears screams. He looks up and sees that the Freddy’s Free Fall ride has a broken cart. He and his co-worker Dominguez are able to get the terrified passengers off the ride. But then, the broken cart begins to fall. Eddie sees a young girl sitting in harm’s way, so he runs towards her. The last thing he remembers is feeling her small hands in his.
Suddenly, he finds himself in heaven. Eddie learns that in heaven, you will meet five people. Each of these people played an important part in your life, even if you didn’t know it at the time. Meeting these people is meant to help you understand the meaning of your life.
The Journey and Arrival
Eddie did not get to witness anything after his final breath. He didn’t see the cart shatter or the crowd on the pier. He remembers the little girl’s face as she cried and the feeling of her hands in his. Then what? He wonders if he was able to save her.
Eddie is floating in the sky, which turns from pink to yellow to green to sapphire. He feels calm. Any pain or sadness he had in life has vanished. He wonders where his worry has gone. Now, he is dropping towards a colorful ocean, but he is not afraid. He is about to find out that death is just the beginning.
Eddie wakes up in a teacup. Though his instinct is to reach for his cane, he realizes it isn’t there and he doesn’t need it. His back doesn’t hurt. His knee doesn’t throb. He jumps out of the teacup and lands awkwardly on the ground. Three things strike Eddie as odd:
- He feels great.
- He is completely alone.
- He is still at Ruby Pier. But it’s the Ruby Pier he knew as a young boy, 75 years ago.
Eddie begins to walk around and take in his surroundings. Realizing he feels no pain, he starts to run for the first time in 60 years – the first time since the war. He runs and leaps and tries to fly like a child would. He only stops when he hears a voice.
Looking towards a large theater, Eddie realizes it’s the voice of a barker announcing a freak show. As a kid, Eddie always felt bad for the cast of the freak shows and how they were forced to sit behind bars while people pointed at them. For some reason, he still walks inside.
Death Is Just the Beginning: Eddie Moves On
Eddie is hanging in a white, silent place. The only noise is his own labored breathing. Eddie realizes that Marguerite is gone, and is overcome with an empty feeling. After some time, Eddie hears a noise and opens his eyes. This feels different than the first four areas of heaven he’s seen.
He hears the noise again—louder this time. It is a noise that has haunted his dreams. The sound is like a medley of squeals and cackles. He yells into the white void: What do you want?
Then, the noise changes. He hears running water and sees that there is now ground under his feet. He is relieved to see that the noise is nothing but the sound of thousands of children laughing and playing. He wonders if that is what he’s been dreaming about all this time, when he thought he was having nightmares.
One of the children catches Eddie’s eye. The young girl is standing on a boulder, and she motions for him to come towards her. In an attempt to follow, Eddie falls on his bad knee. A burst of wind picks him up and places him down right in front of the little girl. Death is just the beginning, and Eddie is about to meet another one of his people.
Eddie is 51. It’s his first birthday since losing Marguerite. She would always insist Eddie celebrate his birthday with taffy, friends, and cake. Now, he doesn’t celebrate—he goes to work and comes home to watch TV, as he always does.
Eddie’s 60th birthday is a Wednesday. He makes himself a sandwich and uses a piece of it as bait for fishing.
On Eddie’s 68th birthday, Joe calls him from Florida. Eddie mostly just says “uh-huh.”
Eddie turns 75 on a Monday. He notices that one of the Ruby Pier workers missed a brake test on one of the rides the night before. So Eddie sighs and checks it himself.
Eddie is 82. He has a taxi pick him up from Ruby Pier and take him to the cemetery. He visits his mother’s grave, Joe’s grave, and his father’s. He saves Marguerite for last. He imagines eating taffy with her one last time.
Eddie’s Final Lesson
The little girl standing before Eddie has beautiful, dark skin and arresting black eyes. She waves her hands excitedly to Eddie. Her name is Tala. He repeats, “Tala.” Then she begins to name things in her own language and Eddie imitates each word.
Eddie sees the other children in the water around them. They are bathing with stones. Tala says that is how their mothers used to wash them. Then Tala notices pipe cleaners in Eddie’s shirt. He twists up a little dog for her. He asks her if she likes the toy, but she answers “You burn me.”
Tala tells Eddie that she used to have to hide from soldiers. Eddie is horrified because he knows that she was the shadow he saw in the flames the day of his escape from captivity. Looking into Tala’s eyes, he is heartbroken. He begins to sob and wail, asking for forgiveness for the things he’s done. Eddie continues to weep while Tala plays with her pipe cleaner dog.
Tala hands Eddie a stone and asks him to wash her. She removes her shirt and Eddie is startled to see that her skin is burned and scarred. As he washes her with the stone, the scars begin to fall away.
Tala uses her fingers to tell Eddie that she is his fifth person. A tear falls down Eddie’s cheek, and Tala asks him why he was sad in his life. Just like he told the Blue Man, the Captain, Ruby, and Marguerite, Eddie says that he was sad because he was stuck at Ruby Pier his whole life. He didn’t feel that’s where he was meant to be. But Tala tells him that he was meant to stay at Ruby Pier. He was keeping other children safe—making up for the harm that he accidentally caused Tala. Then she calls him “Eddie Maintenance.”
Sitting in the river, Eddie can sense that he will be moving on soon. So he asks Tala if she knows about the little girl he died trying to save. He wants to know if he was able to pull her out in time. Tala says no.
Eddie didn’t pull the little girl, he pushed her out of the way of the falling car and into safety.
Eddie is confused, because the only thing he remembered of his last moment was the little girl’s hands in his. Tala smiles and holds Eddie’s hands. The hands Eddie remembers were Tala’s hands as she pulled him into heaven to keep him safe. Eddie realizes that death is just the beginning, and his journey will continue to connect him to the people who are living.
Suddenly, the river water begins to rise. Eddie is carried away by a current. He is still holding Tala’s hand. As he continues to float along, he feels his soul leaving his body. He is going through the colors again, like he did when he first arrived in heaven, and he realizes that these are all of the emotions he felt in life. Soon, he emerges from the water into a dazzling light. This is what he sees:
- Thousands of happy men, women, and children are walking along the boardwalk of Ruby Pier. These are all of the people in the past, present, and future who Eddie has affected in his time as a maintenance man. Hearing the voices of all the people that he has kept safe, Eddie feels peace.
Letting go of Tala’s hand, Eddie floats up above the park. At the top of the Ferris wheel, Marguerite waits for him with open arms. Marguerite’s smile and the voices of the children down below are like a message from God: Eddie is home.
So is it true that death is just the beginning? In The Five People You Meet in Heaven, the answer is yes.
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Here's what you'll find in our full The Five People You Meet In Heaven summary:
- Who the Five People Eddie meets in heaven are
- What each person teaches Eddie about the meaning of his own life
- Why Eddie finally feels gratitude and closure at the end of his life