Wind phones at the Mt Crest Abbey Mausoleum

Two vintage wind phones in an Oregon mausoleum let visitors “talk” to departed loved ones.

The origin story of the “wind phone” begins in Japan in 2011 by most accounts. The original wind phone is an unconnected telephone booth in Ōtsuchi, Iwate Prefecture, Japan, where visitors can hold one-way conversations with deceased loved ones. Since then, many other wind phones have been installed around the world.

I knew about wind phones, but had never seen one until I visited the Mt Crest Abbey Mausoleum in Salem, Oregon on one of my regular trips into the Willamette Valley. The mausoleum is now part of the City View Funeral Home Cemetery & Crematorium.

The mausoleum was built in 1914 and is a splendid, elegant building that’s been added onto several times over the years. A walk through the building reveals changing styles in memorializing the deceased decade over decade. Beautiful stained glass windows make polished stone and bronze gleam.

I found the first wind phone on the ground level, at a junction of hallways. The vintage phone seemed oddly out of place (“who ya gonna call?”), and I was pretty sure it was a wind phone and was excited to finally see one in person. Out of curiosity I picked up the receiver: no dial tone. Yep, a wind phone.

I knew I couldn’t let this opportunity go by, so I sat on the chair and thought about who to call and what to say. I picked up the receiver and wasn’t quite sure what to do next. The usual cue of a dial tone wasn’t there. “What did you hear when you picked up the phone?” asked a friend on Facebook, later. “Nothing,” I replied. “The wind, my own heartbeat, the unknown.” I tapped the button again, but no dial tone.

I recalled that some people dialed telephone numbers they’d memorized over a lifetime, but I couldn’t remember the phone numbers off the top of my head. So I just held the phone to my ear and pretended I was leaving a message on an answering machine (remember those?). That way I could keep it short because I felt a little embarrassed about not knowing what to do despite looking forward to this chance encounter for a long time.

I left messages for two of my ancestors. Who they were and what I said isn’t important here, but I’ll say that I asked for guidance from one and made a promise to the other. I stumbled a little at first, but it got easier; it was like the words were just waiting for the right moment to tumble out of my mouth. I did know what to say, after all; perhaps I just hadn’t known how to say it, or where or when.

I found the second wind phone in an upper gallery. Also vintage but in an entirely different decade, maybe the 1950s or 1960s. I’m guessing this phone came from one of the mortuary offices. When I picked up the receiver the original phone numbers were still taped to it. I didn’t make a call from this phone, but I might some other time.

I’m looking forward to discovering more wind phones “in the wild.” Unfortunately, many that are easy for the public to visit are vandalized. Probably most often in that stupid way people will destroy anything. But I also wonder if some of the vandals have religious convictions that have them thinking wind phones are “satanic” (they aren’t) or will lead to “talking to ghosts” (they won’t).

Sometimes it’s hard to recognize what the right outlet for our grief should be. A wind phone offers one in a safe and familiar context that can ease the way for someone missing a loved one.

Stump and Lamb explores personal growth and meaning via travels to pioneer cemeteries of the West.

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