How Wind Phones Are Helping People Connect With Lost Loved Ones

Old rotary phones are finding new lives as tools to help people grieve.
A wind phone in Ōtsuchi, Japan.
A wind phone in Ōtsuchi, Japan. / Matthew Komatsu, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 4.0

In 2016, Dina Stander was recovering from multiple spine surgeries, laying on a hospital bed in her home office. “I was well-medicated and listening to podcasts,” she tells Mental Floss. One podcast episode in particular sticks out in her memory: “One Last Thing Before I Go” by This American Life. In the episode, the host introduced the audience to Itaru Sasaki, who, in 2010, moved a phone booth and a disconnected phone into his garden in Japan. He wanted to “call” his late cousin and let his “thoughts … be carried on the wind.” When a tsunami hit Japan the next year, Sasaki allowed others to use his phone to speak to those who didn’t survive the disaster. 

Stander was fascinated. As a certified funeral celebrant and former hospice volunteer and hospital chaplain, she worked with people grieving lost loved ones. She was also an artist interested in interactive booths; she had a digital photo booth in a small tent that she set up in different places to see how people engaged with the space. Stander decided to apply the same concept to Sasaki’s “wind telephone.” In 2017, she gathered items for a traveling wind phone and brought them, along with the burial shrouds she sells, to a conference of the National Home Funeral Alliance. 

She hung sheer mosquito netting from a tree to create the booth-like space and to emphasize the role of the wind. Inside, she placed a chair for visitors and a stool for her disconnected black rotary phone. She made a short announcement to the conference attendees about the phone but didn’t explain too much. To her, this was an experiment. Would people actually use the phone? 

They did. Over the weekend, Stander watched the tree from a window in the building and was amazed at how many people ventured inside. Summarizing the utility of the wind phone, she says, “There is this wordless space around grief … and there is this feeling that … I understood from grieving people I had worked with, of not knowing where they can say what they need to say.”

The Rise of Wind Phones

photo of a white and green wind phone in Ireland
Wind phones are usually in quiet, peaceful places. / Eamonn Murdock, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

In the six years since Stander’s experiment, people have installed more wind phones around the world. But Stander, now an end-of-life doula supporting those facing their mortality and their families, knows that they aren’t useful for everyone. Everyone she’s talked to has had a different experience with the concept. Some people are comforted, while others are more upset. 

Brenda Schildknecht-Hargett agrees that not everyone will find wind phones to be worthwhile or want to use them. She teaches courses for Hood College’s certificate in thanatology—the study of dying and grieving—and says that grief is an individual process. For those with persisting worries, a wind phone might be a useful tool to help them express their feelings. In this situation, she likens wind phones to an exercise where someone addresses an empty chair or writes a letter to their lost loved one. 

For Amy Dawson, supporting the world of wind phones has become her mission. After her daughter passed away in 2020, Dawson, now a certified grief bereavement coach, created a website dedicated to these phones in 2022. “When my daughter died, I know I will not recover from that,” she tells Mental Floss. “But I can mindfully integrate how I’m grieving into …  bringing her forward with me in life, and this is how I bring her forward in one way.” But she also emphasizes that the phones aren’t just for those grieving the death of a loved one. She says they can be used by anyone experiencing any kind of loss, such as losing a job or the end of a relationship. 

It’s difficult to say exactly how many wind phones exist. When Dawson reads about a new wind phone or is contacted about one, she adds it to her website’s world map of phone locations, but she believes more exist than she has listed; calculating the exact total is further complicated because sometimes phones are removed or destroyed. 

Dawson’s map now lists phones in the U.S., Canada, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, and several European countries. These phones are in cemeteries, neighborhoods, parks, and along trails. There’s even a wind phone on the Appalachian Trail in New York. Some are created by hospice centers. Some are inside booths, some are mounted to trees or wooden signs, and others are inside small cabinets. “It's so exciting to see the difference the wind phone creators are making in this world—the gift they are giving others in grief is immeasurable. I'm so honored to be part of it,” she says.

Dawson can say that interest in wind phones is growing. Her social media accounts are becoming more popular, and every month, thousands of people visit her website. The number of phones on her website has increased from over 50 to over 160 in just one year. It’s not clear how much of this increased interest is due to the pandemic, but there is evidence it prompted the creation of several wind phones to honor those lost to COVID -19.

How to Create a Wind Phone

People regularly contact Dawson for help creating their own wind phones, and she often provides them with vintage rotary phones at her own expense. She’s learned that a phone’s color can affect its price: Avocado green is particularly prized. In 2023, she shipped more than a dozen phones to people planning to install their own wind phone, and she hopes to send more in the future. “The last thing I want is for the creator to be limited because they can't find or afford the rotary phone,” she says.

The rotary phone is an almost universal feature of wind phones. Schildknecht-Hargett suspects that because we don’t use rotary phones in our everyday lives anymore, their use as wind phones emphasizes that these calls are special. Dawson agrees and says that for her, the action and sound of pulling a rotary phone’s dial around with her finger is calming. Stander used to make calls on rotary phones, so for her, using them as wind phones is soothing because it’s familiar. 

Beyond obtaining a rotary phone, future creators should consider several factors. They should choose a location that is peaceful and ensure that a phone is allowed there. Creators should also make their phone as accessible to as many people as possible. 

For Stander, it’s important that visitors feel they have some privacy to make their calls. “I just try to create in that little booth-shaped space an environment that says you have entered a different place,” she says. “Even though you can still hear all the other stuff happening around you, you're safe in this place that is a little bit contained and also connected.”