How will we mourn everyone who's dead and dying?
This question, like so many others, spiraling inside me. Inside us. I replay the numbers. Yesterday's death count, in my county, our country, our world. As though I’m not numb to them. Morgue fatigue, magnitude fatigue. Instead, I replay the metaphors: yesterday another 9/11, another Antietam. One jumbo jet going down, two going down, the Titanic going down. I try to hold the whole of it in my head and can't. Bodies in mass graves. Bodies in refrigerator trucks.
And all this happening while so many Americans refuse to recognize it's happening. Since it started, two of my uncles have died. Both with severe comorbidities, both in care facilities, though one returned home to die in hospice. I can't get a clear answer about whether their deaths were COVID-related. My family veers right, sees the virus as a political exaggeration. Even mentioning it is charged.
"What happened?" I ask my father on the phone. "Well, it's not entirely clear. He was in bad shape." I know not to press him, not because he isn't reasonable, but because he knows better than to press our family about the virus at such a moment. This, in the family etiquette, isn’t a moment for politics.
So how will we mourn our dead when we can't speak about how they died or how, had we acted otherwise as a country, so many of them wouldn't have?
Sometimes I try to still these questions looping in my head by listening to podcasts, usually in the dark, sleepless hours. Experts on collective trauma, storytellers on healing, gurus on grief. Sometimes it helps. One night I came across an episode on This American Life called "Really Long Distance." It's a bad title for a beautiful subject.
In 2010, a garden-designer named Itaru Sasaki built one of those old-timey telephone booths in his garden. It overlooks the sea in the Otsuchi region on the east coast of Japan. It has a black rotary phone. The phone isn’t connected. No line, no signal. Sasaki built it after his cousin and long-time drinking buddy died of cancer. He uses the phone to speak to his dead cousin. Sasaki calls it "kaze no denwa," the wind phone or the phone of the wind. It’s the wind that carries your words to the dead.
And then, about a year later, on March, 11, 2011, one of the worst tsunamis in history hit the eastern coast of Japan, the very region where Sasaki lives. At least 16,000 people died, another 2,500 went missing, almost half a million were displaced. Soon after, the wind phone became a place of pilgrimage. Thousands of people have come to Sasaki’s garden, picked up the black telephone, and called their dead.
In the episode, you hear the mourners speaking on the phone. You hear the grief rake through their voices. As I was listening and crying and trying not to wake up my wife and son sleeping next to me from crying, I found myself wondering what a wind phone might look like for me? For us? What might carry our words to our dead?
Then it occurred to me: we don't call, we text. What if we could text our dead? So I did what you do with a grief-soaked idea that comes to you on a sleepless night in the middle of a global pandemic. I registered a domain, built a website, bought a phone, got a new line, started a Twitter account, and created the badly titled Text Our Dead, where you can send a text to your dead. Here's how I introduce it:
Q: What is this?This is a chance to text someone who has died.Q: What should I text?Text what you want to say. Or what you didn't. Ask what you want to ask. Or didn't. Text about your dreams or your day or your dog. Send a blessing. Send a curse. Share with your dead your grief, your memories, your love.Q: Will I get a text back?Not from this number, which isn't the same as saying you won't hear back.
In the daylight, I doubt the idea holds up. Then again, right now I doubt anything holds up, including me.
As an essayist, I think of Text Our Dead as something like an intervention into the culture of American mourning at a moment when we're dying faster than any time in our history, but usually I think of it in light of something Sasaki has said: “Life is only, at most, 100 years. But death is something that goes on much longer, both for the person who has died and also for the survivors, who must find a way to feel connected to the dead. Death does not end the life. All the people who are left afterward are still figuring out what to do about it. They need a way to feel connected.”
We all know American rituals of mourning are shit. Be brave at the funeral. Be back at work on Monday. Get over it. Get on with it. Don't cry. Don't bury the bones of your loved ones in your heart. For us, it’s not a connection but a chasm between the living and the dead. We’re bad at death, bad with our dead, and bad deaths are happening all around us.
To say it another way, just as the pandemic has exposed so much that’s wrong about our culture—our economic inequality, our racial injustice, our environmental negligence, our cruelty towards immigrants, the elderly, and the poor—it’s also exposing how terrible we are at mourning.
And then there’s Sasaki, with a very different view: death goes on, life goes on, the living need to feel connected to the dead.
How might that happen for us? Maybe through our smartphones rather than Sasaki’s old rotary phone. When asked why he chose a phone, Sasaki explained that picking up the phone primes you to speak. You just start talking. That’s right as far as it goes, but nowadays we just start texting. It's our go-to, our mostly likely way of connecting with others in our lives. Maybe texting can also connect us with our dead.
Our phones, after all, are already conduits of death. The final calls from the ICU, the last Facetimes. And we're all figuratively dying on our phones we're always on. For work, for school, for the closest thing many of us have to human touch. Touch screens. It's soul-killing. What left to lose? If we text to connect, why not try to connect with those we’ve lost?
Try. That’s the key word. Try, test, essay. That's why I’m sharing Text Our Dead with you on Essay Daily. We’re believers in the essay. We want to see—want to essay—what words can do. Words thumbed on the phones and mangled by autocorrect. Words generated from voice-to-text and pocked with emojis. Words crafted from memory, from missing, from the possibility that your words might mean something not only for you, but for them, your dead.
“Death does not end the life,” says Sasaki.
Sure, it’s absurd, but if we’re willing to risk dying in traffic to send a text, why not risk the absurdity and text our dead?
Eric LeMay is the author of Remember Me and other work. The quote and paraphrases of Itaru Sasaki's words come from Tessa Fontaine’s “The Phone of the Wind” in The Believer (July 25, 2018).