This Magazine

Progressive politics, ideas & culture

March-April 2023

Talking with the dead

Across time and cultures, humans have sought to communicate with loved ones who have died. As the lone survivor of a family, I need those conversations

Lesley Buxton

Illustration by Janie Hao

“The trust is, of course, that there is no journey. We are arriving and departing all at the same  time.”

—David Bowie


The Parisian night sky is charcoal grey. Fog rises from the Seine like a lonely apparition and is swept away by the glare of Notre-Dame Cathedral’s lights. At Point Zero, the famous symbol that marks the centre of the ancient city, stands a Christmas tree decorated in purple lights. People crowd around taking photos. Somewhere in the distance a siren blares. The air smells of mulled wine, roasted chestnuts, and wet limestone. I breathe in, savouring it all. It’s the last Friday of 2018 and our last night in Paris.

My husband, Mark, and I are standing in line for the cathedral among a motley group of tourists, Christmas revellers, and worshippers. Around my neck I wear a blue velvet ribbon decorated with a hand-blown glass bead, the exact blue of a Paris sky in June. When we arrived in the city I had five beads. Over the past two days, Mark and I have zigzagged across Paris, leaving beads behind a balustrade in the Palais Garnier, in the Fontaine Saint-Michel, from Pont Neuf into the Sein, and in front of an old tree near the stairs leading to Sacré Coeur.

This is the last.

The beads were custom-made for us by a glassmaker, and each contains a speck of Indy dust—this is what I call the cremated remains of my daughter, India. Each bead is about the size of a gumball. They are decorated with musical notes, birds, and stars—symbols that tell India’s story.

The last time we were in Paris, India was still living. She was 11 and in love with the history of the city. She could still walk and do most of the things healthy kids do. The rare neurodegenerative disease spinal muscular atrophy with progressive myoclonic epilepsy (SMA-PME)—to which she would eventually succumb at age 16—was still relatively controlled.

Mark and I decided to leave our last Indy bead at Notre-Dame cathedral, because my husband remembered he and India climbing the 422 steps up to the tower on that visit. India had watched the Disney version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame and was eager to see the famous view. I remember waiting outside, looking up towards the tower and worrying. I was afraid India would fall down the staircase or exhaust herself. Instead, she was invigorated, grinning broadly when she returned, as if she’d climbed a tall tree and swung from one of the highest branches.

Since India’s death in 2013, Mark and I have left beads in the U.S., Japan, England, Canada, and Portugal—places she loved or wanted to visit. It’s our way of staying in communication with India and keeping her in communication with the world.

The word bead comes from the old German word for pray. It’s related to the medieval English custom of praying with rosaries to count bedes. This makes sense to me as when we leave a bead, I feel as though I’m speaking with my daughter. To me, India is as close as it gets to a deity.

Of course, I’m not the first to feel this way about a loved one who has died. According to Charles W. King, the author of The Ancient Roman Afterlife, the Romans believed that after death ordinary people became deified and were called Manes. These God-like dead were worshipped by their families and it was believed they had the power to look out for their living relations. Every February, the Romans celebrated a nine-day festival, devoted to their family’s dead, called Parentalia. Families gathered to remember their dead relatives and brought offerings of garlands, salt, and bread softened with wine. They hung out at their relatives’ tombs and ate meals, to reconnect with those they’d lost.

Joseph R. Lee, a certified Jungian analyst and one of the hosts of the podcast This Jungian Life, believes we’d benefit from more such normalized traditions around connecting with our dead, in modern times. In Episode 217 – Death: A Jungian Perspective, he says:

“Certainly we deprive ourselves of the kind of elegant religious ascetic that many more ancient cultures have been able to cultivate. In part because lacking the technology we have in the modern age, they could not forestall death in the ancient world and therefore developing an attitude of acceptance was essential. But also it seems that death was considered an intrinsic and essential part of life. One of the religious shapings around death, was the certitude that the ancestors continued to be in intimate relationship with their progeny—facilitating, protecting, helping, nurturing.”

I envy the Roman’s their public proclamations of grief. These days, I hide the fact I’m a bereaved mother until I’m sure I can trust people. I nod my head and smile as people talk about their kids, pretending I never had any. Grief has made me a liar.

I found a baby’s epitaph on the Vindolanda Trust blog—Vindolanda is the name of a historical Roman auxiliary fort just south of Hadrian’s Wall in northern England. It serves as a poignant reminder of the universality of parental love. To put this in perspective, in ancient Rome one-third or one-quarter of babies died in their first year of life. Parents may have, as Lee suggests, been more accepting of death as part of life, but they were certainly not immune to the pain of loss.

“My baby Acerva was snatched away to live in Hades before she had her fill of the sweet light of life. She was beautiful and charming, a little darling as if from heaven. Her father weeps for her and, because he is her father, asks that the earth may rest lightly on her forever.”

Mark and I are the last two people allowed into the cathedral. As I slip through the great door, I feel as though I’m leaving one world and entering another. The commotion of modern Paris is suddenly very removed. The inside of the cathedral looks as if it’s been covered by a gauzy lavender-grey shroud; lights and candles flicker throughout the building, but behind every pillar and column there’s darkness.

Only the brilliant gold cross and the priest in his crimson robes are well lit. Bells ring, and voices mumble prayers that sound like spells. We sit for a while and take it all in. I watch people light candles and wonder how many of them are talking to their dead.

I talk to my dead daughter all the time. Sometimes, I just tell her that I miss her; at other times I ask her to help me—like when I’m scared walking the dog alone late at night or driving in a storm. I’m aware there’s a good chance that I’m talking to myself. I don’t care.

Mary-Frances O’Connor, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Arizona and the author of The Grieving Brain: The Surprising Science of How We Learn from Love and Loss, explains needs like mine like this, “In humans as well, it is because your loved one existed that certain neurons fire together and certain proteins are folded in your brain in particular ways. It is because your loved one lived, and because you loved each other, that means when the person is no longer in the outer world, they still physically exist—in the wiring of the neurons of your brain.”

When I first read O’Connor’s last line, I read whirring, not wiring. This seemed like a better description of what my grief feels like. It’s as if my brain is filled with the constant hum of grief and worry. Only talking to my daughter quietens it.

I heard about the Wind Phone from a friend. Overlooking the Japanese city of Ōtsuchi, this shrine is composed of an old-fashioned phone booth and a disconnected black rotary phone. But it is no ordinary phone; it allows the bereaved to talk to those who have died—the idea being that the wind carries the mourners’ words to their loved ones.

Created by Itaru Sasaki, to honour a beloved cousin he lost to cancer, the shrine now receives over 30,000 visitors a year. First opened to the public after the devastating tsunami in 201l, the Wind Phone offered relief to people who didn’t get a chance to say goodbye to the loved ones they lost. Today replicas of the shrine have sprung up all around the globe including in Quebec, North Carolina, and Dublin.

If the thought of using a dial-up telephone to talk with your dead seems too old-fashioned, there’s now the Here After app. It works like this: a virtual interviewer offers prompts in order to help the participant share stories about their childhood, relationships, passions, and interests. These are recorded and stored so that loved ones can ask questions and interact with, thanks to the magic of artificial intelligence, the participant’s virtual avatar on their phone or computer—even after the participant has long since died.

It sounds appealing, particularly the opportunity to hear my daughter’s voice again. If I close my eyes, I can still imagine the sound of her calling me or singing one of the showtunes she was so fond of. Nothing makes me happier than when someone tells me a story about India or sends a photo. I’m always appreciative—after all I’m aware that the photos and stories I have are it. There are only so many of these in existence. I can easily imagine I might become addicted to the Here After app. Constantly relying on it to give me an India fix whenever I craved it. But the true work of grief is learning to create this kind of experience for one’s self. That is why leaving the Indy beads in places Indy had loved was so important to Mark and me. At each place, we built a new connection and memory with her.

“Almost a third of Americans say they have communicated with someone who has died, and they collectively spend more than two billion dollars a year for psychic services on platforms old and new,” says Casey Cep, a writer for the New Yorker.

Throughout my daughter’s illness I blogged about our lives, sharing our experiences in and out of the hospital; the possibility of a treatment, when a university research team took an interest in her rare and degenerative condition; and then the shattering reality of her death and learning to live without her. It was all there, hopefully to help other people going through similar ordeals. But I soon learned that seeking solace in their grief was not the only reason some people sought out blogs and social media posts about death and bereavement.

Three months after India died, I received an email from a so-called psychic in England. She told me she’d been contacted by a little girl she believed was India. She said that the girl’s head hurt and that she was crying for her mummy. She wanted my consent to speak to her. Of course, she assured me, she didn’t want money, just to help. The letter filled me with panic. Later when I thought about it logically, I felt angry that someone had attempted to use my grief against me.

People are always recommending psychics to me. I tell them, I don’t need anyone else. I feel India with me and communicate with her in my own way all the time.

I may be alone in this. Many people seem to prefer to employ professionals, to connect with deceased loved ones. Cep says, “Like clairvoyants in centuries past, those of today also fill auditoriums, lecture halls, and retreats.” The first Spiritualist church appeared in the 1840s in upstate New York and by the 1860s, they had followers throughout the world.

The Spiritualists believe in communication with the spirits of dead people through gifted mediums. Cep says, “there are more than a hundred Spiritualist churches in the United States, more than three hundred in the United Kingdom, and hundreds of others in more than thirty countries around the world.” There are spiritualist churches across Canada from Vancouver to Ottawa. Though, I don’t feel the need for a session with a medium, I do find myself wondering what it would be like to sit in one of those churches in the company of others, who like myself wanted nothing more than to talk to their dead.

Mark and I venture into the cathedral’s ambulatory, hoping to find a good resting place for our last Indy bead. As I walk, I think about the history buried beneath the stone slabs we are walking on; the 4th century basilica and 9th century Carolingian cathedral that once stood here. For hundreds and hundreds of years, this piece of land has been the real estate of the bereaved and grief-stricken, all pleading with their dead for a sign.

When India was dying, I remember whispering in her ear, telling her that I loved her over and over. If she had to die, I wanted it to feel like falling into a sleep. I have always imagined death to feel like being pulled under. Like Alice falling through the rabbit hole in Alice in Wonderland but instead of furniture floating around, scenes from one’s life float by.

Further back still, the Notre-Dame Cathedral was once the site of Lutetia, the Roman predecessor of Paris. The Pillar of the Boatman, the oldest piece of sculpture in France, was discovered here. Dedicated to the Roman god Jupiter, it was a gift to the Roman Emperor Tiberius from the Guild of Boatmen of the Seine, a group of Gauls. For me, the name of the piece conjures images of the Seine as a sort of River Styx, separating the living from the dead. I imagine boatloads of deceased Parisians making their way down the grey, cold river.

The sculpture is considered a rare find as it features symbols treasured by the Celtic Gauls as well as Romans. One of the featured Gods is the Celtic Gaul’s horned God, Cernunnos—an imposing being that bears an uncanny resemblance to Tim Curry’s character in the 1985 movie, Legend. Not much is known about this character, but it’s easy to imagine him, calling one to the shadows, begging one to join him on the other side.

Picking the exact spot to place an Indy bead is always difficult. Sometimes it takes a while. We always wander back and forth from place to place, trying to decide, hoping to get it perfect. This feels like an important part of our conversation with India.

Finally, we decide on a hiding place. The marble statue of Joan of Arc by Charles Jean Desvergnes, built to commemorate her beautification in 1909. Other than the Virgin Mary, it may be the only other feminine presence in the building. Regal in her helmet and armour, the Saint wears her sword hanging from her hip. Her hands are clasped in prayer. She has the kind of feminine teenage energy I admire. And like my daughter, she was forced to sacrifice everything.

I tuck the bead under Joan of Arc’s foot. Usually, we hide the bead a little, place it under or behind an object. It’s not that we don’t want it found, we just don’t want it to be found too easily. It’s like we’re testing the person who will discover it—like parents meeting their teenage girl’s boyfriend for the first time. We want to make sure they have the appropriate sense of wonder.

Four months late, in April when the fire breaks out at Notre-Dame, I’m glued to the news, as orange flames engulf the spire and the roof. Great wafts of grey smoke circle the ancient building, while toxic dust and lead spew forth contaminating the surrounding area.

I wonder if the little blue Indy bead is still under St. Joan’s foot. I imagine at the first sign of the fire, St. Joan’s spirit lifting from the statue, and wandering angrily about the cathedral, saying “Not this again. I told you God, I’m done with fire!”

It’s strange to think of a monument this magnificent, vulnerable to something as trivial as, say, faulty old electrical wires or a dropped cigarette. Before succumbing to the fire, the cathedral had survived more than 800 years of plagues, revolutions, and wars.

Part of me hopes the Indy bead was found soon after we left it in the cathedral. A lucky talisman that the discoverer takes everywhere. Maybe, they whisper to it when they are afraid or anxious, roll it in their palm, admiring its beauty. I like that thought. This way India’s story continues independently.

There’s another part of me that likes to think of the Indy bead lost in all the rubble and ash surrounded by all that glorious art and history. I picture the spirits of India and St. Joan wandering through the cathedral and pranking the construction team tasked with the rebuild, moving their tools from place to place. I imagine the two of them talking about boys and giggling over plans to spook the night watchman. Racing up to the highest remaining point of the cathedral so they can watch the living saunter by, and comment on how fearful they seem.

Last December, at a creamatorium in Nottinghamshire, England, a Postbox to Heaven was installed thanks to nine-year-old, Matilda Handy, who wanted to stay in communication with her grandparents who’d both passed on. Matilda told ITV Central, a U.K. regional news network, “It was very nice because I’m very upset and it’s just a very nice way to express my feelings and send a letter to them and to say how much I love them.” Within two months, the box had received a hundred letters. The crematorium, which is part of the Westerleigh Group, is now rolling out postboxes to heaven across the U.K.

When I found out about the Postbox to Heaven, I thought about the first time India went to overnight summer camp. She was nine and very excited, because it was a riding camp. I was worried she’d be lonely so I wrote a letter for every day she was away. I did my best to make the letters special. Each one was written on fancy paper with colourful envelopes decorated with stickers and drawings. I spent a lot of time thinking about what to say and drawing pictures of things she liked. I remember writing her name in big loopy letters on the envelopes and putting a heart over the I instead of a dot. I put all the letters in a little cloth drawstring bag and tied it with a bow.

After a week, India returned home from camp, exhausted and smelling like a horse. She’d had a great time. As I was throwing her clothes into the washing basket, I noticed the drawstring bag was still closed with the bow. I opened it out of curiosity. Not a single letter was open.

“India, why didn’t you open my letters?” I said, a little hurt.

“Oh, I was so busy, Mummy,” she said. “I forgot.”

Later when I was complaining to a friend about India and the letters, she’d laughed and said I should be happy I’d raised such an independent child. Looking back, I now realize the letters were just as much for me as they were for India. I needed to express how much I was thinking of her. That’s still true today. It doesn’t matter whether she actually hears me or not, when I place her beads in special places and talk with her inside my head.

Paris was the last trip we made with Indy beads, before the pandemic put travel on pause. Last September, less than three years after the Notre-Dame Cathedral was devastated by fire—Mark died. He was diagnosed on his 64th birthday with stage 4 Melanoma and died a month before what would have been his 65th.

Before Mark’s illness, I thought I knew what it was to watch someone suffer. For years, I’d watched India tortured by seizure after seizure. This was different. Mark’s cancer struck quickly and consumed him entirely. One moment, we were planning trips in our trailer, the next I was holding him up in the superstore because he couldn’t breathe. In six months, he went from 220 to 150 lbs. At the cancer clinic where he’d taken his immunotherapy treatment, his nurse asked if I was his daughter. I was only eight years younger than Mark.

Since becoming a widow I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the past. It’s a strange feeling to be the lone survivor of the family I created. It’s like we all went to war and I’m the only one who returned. The only one left to tell our story. Still, there are times I struggle to believe they are really both gone, or that I once had a child and a husband. So much loss is hard to grasp.

In her article “Walking in the Dark: Creating a New Virtual Map in Your Brain After Loss,” Mary-Frances O’Connor says:

“When we experience a loss through death, our brain initially cannot comprehend that the dimensions we usually use to locate our loved ones simply do not exist anymore. We may even search for them, feeling like we might be a bit crazy for doing so.

If we feel that we know where they are, even in an abstract place like Heaven, we may feel comforted that our virtual map just needs to be updated to include a place and time that we have never been. Updating also includes changing our prediction algorithm, learning the painful lessons of not filling in the gaps with the sights, sounds, and sensations of our loved ones.”

When Mark was in the hospice dying, he told me if I was going to make it after he died, I’d have to forget him and India—pretend they never existed. He was suggesting I wrap up the conversation and move on. When he said this, he was no longer the Mark I’d always known. The cancer and the drugs had changed him. He’d become unbearably frank, sometimes saying things that hurt my feelings. The way he saw it, I suppose, there was not enough time left for niceties.

At the time, I nodded and smiled. But I never once entertained Mark’s suggestion. We were together for 30 years. I’d lived with him longer than I’d lived without him. As far as I was concerned it was not an option to stop talking with the people I loved most, regardless if they were living or dead, listening or not. It would be like losing my leg in an accident and pretending I’d never loved to dance.

At the moment, Mark’s ashes are in my underwear drawer in a plain cardboard box. Eventually though, I intend to have some beads made with his ashes. I will have some more Indy beads made as well. My plans aren’t definite yet, but I’ve been thinking about placing some of their beads in Rome. Mark lived there as a child. He talked about the city the way one might a lost love. We always meant to go there together but we never did. Still, I know all about the city from the stories he told me. How he played in the Villa Borghese gardens and around the Colosseum. I imagine our conversation will continue once I’m there. I look forward to this with all my heart.

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