The fields of Oakwood Cemetery lie crowded with souls — governors, generals and grandmothers — all stubbornly silent.
For centuries, the grieving find little comfort but to speak the names on their stones, letting the words float off on the wind.
But now a telephone booth offers a direct line to the cosmos, a tool for shortening the distance to eternity. Partially hidden in a wooden alcove, the “wind phone” giving the mournful or the curious extra assurance that the dead are not only listening, but maybe even talking back.
“I think it’s a comfort,” said Robin Simonton, the cemetery’s executive director. “Of course, it’s not a tool to communicate. It’s just a symbol. But anytime you feel close to somebody, or have the tools to feel close to somebody ...”
The wind phone stands just beyond the stone bridge, a short walk from the downtown cemetery’s granite arch, hidden partially by trees to facilitate private calls to the afterlife.
The receiver dangles inside a wooden booth made by Ian Dunn, a Raleigh photographer and archivist. When you cradle it to your ear, the only sounds come rushing out of imagination — a dial tone made from memory.
Simonton didn’t announce or explain the phone’s presence after it went up this summer, but she tried it out herself on a day she missed her grandma.
“I just hit a button,” she said, noting the phone’s keypad. “I wish it had a rotary. It would have been very soothing. Maybe I thought Heaven had a more high-tech version.”
Then on Saturday, she saw a woman pick it up and cautiously begin a celestial conversation — her family standing several steps behind. She looked a little confused, but she kept talking.
“The cemetery’s goal is to find ways for people to talk about death and grief,” said Simonton. “Death doesn’t go away, and the way we deal with it and feel it helps us all.”
As far as she can tell, the world has fewer than 10 wind phones, though one of them stands somewhere in North Carolina. The idea came from Japan, where garden designer Itaru Sasaki built one for speaking to his cousin. A year later after he made it, in 2011, an earthquake and tsunami killed more than 15,000 people, so Sasaki opened his phone to the public.
A visitor will find a QR code on a small sign, linking them to this poem by Stuart Gunter:
“The dial tone is silent and the ringing reaches up to the clouds: Hello, if you’re out there, please listen to me. Please, be okay. Please: be okay. Without all of you, it’s meaningless.
“Have a good trip. Good luck. As if they could hear them and would be home in time for supper.”
It is tempting, even reassuring, to imagine a phone somewhere at the end of the other line, on a cloud or in some happy afterlife.
I think of a my own father, eternally 10 years old, at the free hot dog stand of a never-ending Cleveland Indians game, suddenly pricking up his ears at the ringing.