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“We Never Die” and Other Beliefs About Spirits and the Afterlife From Lily Dale

A blue sign with gold letters announcing the Lily Dale assembly, center for spiritualism
What exactly is a ghost? We have a tendency to think these apparitions, spirits, specters, and wraiths just appear in front of us, like in the movies. A translucent thing that floats through dark, creepy hallways and cellars. But what if the deceased are projecting themselves into our minds while awake and dreaming? What if we’re seeing ghosts a lot more often than we think and we just can’t acknowledge it?

These were just a few questions swirling in my mind while writing Chasing Ghosts: A Tour of Our Fascination with Spirits and the Supernatural (Quirk Books), though other individuals are clearer on these points. For example, the hamlet of Lily Dale Assembly in New York, a small community just outside of Buffalo, has been home to mediums and Spiritualists since the late nineteenth century. Signs reading medium hang outside a majority of the homes. Posted inside the church are the Principles of Spiritualism, which include the tenets “We never die” and “Spiritualism proves that we can talk with people in the spirit world.” The nature of death and the existence of an afterlife aren’t mysteries; they’re truths. Quite appealing truths, considering how this view of death can offer such peace in life.

During the summer, crowds of curious visitors typically flood Lily Dale to take part in its many seminars, classes, workshops, and other events. My research for the book coincided with the beginning of the pandemic, which meant my visit in July 2020 was a bit quieter. The place was practically empty—a ghost town (couldn’t resist)—and it held nearly all its programs virtually. To my knowledge, my daughter Lela and I were the only guests at the historic Maplewood Hotel. Opened in 1880, it might be the only hotel in the world with a sign in the lobby reading “no séances.” We abided.

An image of Lily Dale's "inspiration" tree stump

Twice a day visitors are invited to experience these beliefs at Inspiration Stump—an actual tree stump standing about three feet high with a roughly four-foot diameter that’s situated in a quiet corner of Leolyn Woods (not far from a pet cemetery). After the tree was struck by lightning in the late 1800s, it was leveled off and filled with concrete. Steps were added, allowing people to ascend to its top and feel the vortex of spiritual energy that has built up from the many mediums who’ve gathered there over the past century.

Rows of wooden benches facing the stump fill with people ready to receive a reading from one of the local registered mediums, visiting mediums, or student mediums. For about an hour, these psychics take turns delivering messages as they come from Spirit. Roughly sixty people and five mediums joined us for the session we attended.

“May I come to the lady in the orange-copper top?” one of the mediums asked a woman named Lisa sitting on a bench next to us. Lisa apparently was behind schedule in several big projects and thought she was too far behind in one to follow through. But delays, the medium explained, are to her benefit and would serve her well.

“You’re going to go ahead and start on it and you’re going to question yourself and in the end you’re going to have bounty,” the medium told her. “You’re going to get it done in shorter time because of the delay. I feel there’s a bigger loss if you don’t do it.”

“Alright,” Lisa responded tepidly, perhaps feeling less confident than the medium.

Life advice, assorted details, and the love and support of departed loved ones were offered to various members in the audience. People mostly nodded along, offered an occasional “Oh, my God,” and generally acknowledged what they were hearing rang true. My daughter and I were not called upon.

Nearby, as we walked down one of the narrow roads lined with quaint houses, we stumbled upon a spirit artist and registered medium named Bonnie White who had stepped outside to water her plants. She was an older woman with white hair to match her name and a kind, warm face. We chatted briefly and made an appointment for the next day.

Wearing our masks and with a plexiglass divider safely between us, White began the session with a prayer to Spirit, then closed her eyes, grabbed a handful of small charcoal pieces from a silver hand-shaped tray and began rubbing them over an 11×14 sheet of paper. Entranced in the moment, we watched with curiosity and suspense—until the alarm at the fire department across the street shattered the silence and broke the mood. But minutes later the quiet was restored.

White closed her eyes again, continued sketching, then paused to look at what she’d drawn. At first she noticed a swan looking directly up. This, she explained, was a sign of peacefulness and a symbol of Lily Dale since swans had once been common to the bordering Cassadaga Lake. Then White detected the face of a woman. Who might she be? Did we know a young woman in the family who’d passed? No. White lowered her eyelids once more, rubbed more charcoal, and continued finding interesting images within the markings. Was this merely an exercise in pareidolia? Or was a spirit trying to tell us something through the charcoal? What did the appearance of a hand reaching down from Heaven, as if extending itself to us, mean? In another spot, White noticed a baby peering over the shoulder of its mother and asked Lela if she had memories from a very early age. She acknowledged that she did. This, the medium suggested, might be a sign of closeness with her mother. Maybe it was.

White has been doing these kinds of readings at Lily Dale since 1990 and has been an artist for most of her life. She told us how her father had psychic abilities and had a gift for healing others. He had also heard voices that warned him of oncoming danger and prevented numerous tragedies.

“I grew up believing, because how could I help it?” she said.

Outside of Lily Dale, Spiritualists certainly aren’t alone. According to a 2019 survey by data website YouGov, 45% of Americans believe in ghosts. Some of them are featured in Chasing Ghosts, but many other stories reach back over the centuries and across the world. Belief in ghosts, after all, has been with us as long as we’ve wondered if there’s life after death.

This article expands on a section from Marc Hartzman’s new book, Chasing Ghosts: A Tour of Our Fascination with Spirits and the Supernatural (Quirk Books). More stories about Spiritualism, ghosts in ancient cultures, haunted places, paranormal experiences, and technology’s role in ghost hunting can be found within its pages. Available now.

(image: BILLROCK54, FLICKR // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0, Willjay // Wikimedia Commons)

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