Phone Call to the Dead

By Lloyd Graff

This American Life on NPR routinely does amazing stories on radio. The program, hosted by Ira Glass, recently had this piece that really struck me.

In 2010 a man named Itaru from the town of Otsuchi, Japan, was having a hard time dealing with the loss of his cousin. He decided to install a phone booth with an old rotary dial phone on the grass in his backyard where he could go to communicate with his dead cousin. Most Japanese are Buddhist and generally believe that when people die they don’t instantly get to go to heaven and leave all of their earthly concerns behind. They believe that the dead can see suffering of the family members who are still living and they can be caught in a state of limbo in-between life and death. Itaru’s phone was not actually hooked up to a line, but picking it up and imagining he was talking to his cousin was a way for him to deal with his grief.

One year after Itaru installed the phone booth his town of Otsuchi was devastated by the Tsunami in March of 2011 that killed over 19,000 people in Japan. According to the radio story Otsuchi was the place worst hit by the disaster.

Somehow a buzz about Itaru’s phone booth to communicate with the dead spread around Japan. People started coming from everywhere to the phone booth to talk to their own family members who had died in the tsunami. It has become a shrine of sorts, something like the granite wall in Washington with the names of 58,000 American soldiers killed in Vietnam. But this is even more intimate because the people who come to the phone shrine dial their lost family and talk to them as if they are actually on the line.

The reporter for this story is of Japanese origin. She got permission to tape and translate the conversations for the radio piece.

I found calls heartbreaking, but utterly fascinating. People dialed a number like they were calling home and talked to the dead often in a matter of fact way, and sometimes in a sad, regretful way. “Is it cold there?” a man would ask his dead wife. In Japanese culture emotion is rarely expressed overtly, but in the tapes of the calls you could hear the pain and sadness in the most mundane statements and queries.

The conversations (one way, of course) brought tears to my eyes as my wife and I were driving home from the city last Sunday night.

I thought of conversations I wish I had with my parents before they died. I was on a vacation trip with my sister Susan and her family when my mother died suddenly. There was never a chance for a last talk. I would have liked a chance to tell her I loved her deeply.

I do remember a heartfelt talk with my father, visiting him in Florida. We were talking about his wife, my mother, who had died a few years earlier and he said something that struck me with such impact that I still recall it frequently. I thought of it while listening to the “phone call to the dead” show. “I wish I’d given her more jewelry,” he told me.

I asked a therapist about this remark because I wondered why it seemed to bother my father so much. The psychologist interpreted the remark to mean “I wish I gave her more love or sex.” If I could talk to my father today I would ask him to tell me more about the “I wish I gave her more jewelry” comment.

We all have things we’d like to ask the dead or tell the departed. This is the season as we head toward the holidays when we should ask the questions and express our feelings to our loved ones, before we have to make a phone call to the dead.

Question: What would you say in a phone call to the dead?

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7 thoughts on “Phone Call to the Dead

    1. peter

      Actually, while Lloyd’s description of “Phone Call to the Dead” is very good and as always pithy and penetrating, one really should listen to the broadcast as it is perhaps the most moving piece of radio I have ever heard. I was driving to my farm in southern Missouri and this show brought me tears, for an extended period. It is absolutely amazing.
      – it is the second segment…

  1. Josh

    TAL is one of the best shows on radio, I’ll have to download the podcast for this one, it sounds wonderful. I love that you and Noah are fans of such great shows like TAL and Radiolab, NPR isn’t incredibly popular in some circles but I find they have some of the best programming around between NPR, PRI and NPM.

  2. Greg

    Marvin, these are available on the This American Life website and podcasts. Podcasts usually available for just one week, but the episodes can be streamed from the website indefinitely.

  3. Ken

    It is not what I would say to them but what they would say to me that frightens me.
    I’ve had the Father God ask me “who in hell is calling your name”.
    So, what am I doing to forewarn those who are heading to a devils hell?
    This is what concerns me most.
    Regrets, yes.
    Hurt for not saying I love you? Yes.
    Confidence that those who are on this side may find hope with my smile, my kindness and my love. This is what keeps me from making a phone call and concentrating on the living.
    However this story does show us how we are attached to those around us and those who love us, hurt us and leave us and we wish we could have one more conversation with.
    I understand why he did this and can understand why there would be a line outside that folding door.

  4. rick

    Ecclesiastes 9:1-12 (KJV)

    9 For all this I considered in my heart even to declare all this, that the righteous, and the wise, and their works, are in the hand of God: no man knoweth either love or hatred by all that is before them.

    2 All things come alike to all: there is one event to the righteous, and to the wicked; to the good and to the clean, and to the unclean; to him that sacrificeth, and to him that sacrificeth not: as is the good, so is the sinner; and he that sweareth, as he that feareth an oath.

    3 This is an evil among all things that are done under the sun, that there is one event unto all: yea, also the heart of the sons of men is full of evil, and madness is in their heart while they live, and after that they go to the dead.

    4 For to him that is joined to all the living there is hope: for a living dog is better than a dead lion.

    5 For the living know that they shall die: but the dead know not any thing, neither have they any more a reward; for the memory of them is forgotten.

    6 Also their love, and their hatred, and their envy, is now perished; neither have they any more a portion for ever in any thing that is done under the sun.

    7 Go thy way, eat thy bread with joy, and drink thy wine with a merry heart; for God now accepteth thy works.

    8 Let thy garments be always white; and let thy head lack no ointment.

    9 Live joyfully with the wife whom thou lovest all the days of the life of thy vanity, which he hath given thee under the sun, all the days of thy vanity: for that is thy portion in this life, and in thy labour which thou takest under the sun.

    10 Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might; for there is no work, nor device, nor knowledge, nor wisdom, in the grave, whither thou goest.

    11 I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.

    12 For man also knoweth not his time: as the fishes that are taken in an evil net, and as the birds that are caught in the snare; so are the sons of men snared in an evil time, when it falleth suddenly upon them.

    in other words
    Live Each Day Like It’s Your Last, for someday it will be…

  5. Pete

    Lloyd, this is an excellent piece that I can identify with. I was in Japan this past summer. I visited a family that I stayed with in 1988 as part of a business study tour where we visited many companies including Hitachi Seiki Machine Tools. The husband and wife are now retired, but they and their family belong to a religious group with 40,000 members. Their main beliefs are in God and the eternal nature of the human soul, which includes reincarnation. Their group combines Judeo-Christian ideas along with aspects of Buddhism. I found their beliefs to be something that I could generally agree with. And, the fact that my father (who was in a state of dementia) had passed away at close to the same time as my introduction to their ideas struck me as quite a coincidence. However, the one thing that I found difficult was their comments about their leader, who they said could help the church members communicate with the souls of their deceased loved ones. From my personal experience as well as your article here, apparently there is a sizable portion of the Japanese population that finds a spiritual connection to be an acceptable idea. To conclude, let me say that I have a great deal of respect for their culture, work ethic and technology. They make great products, including machine tools!


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