Monday, September 5, 2011

Summoning the so-called dead in Lily Dale, New York

Lily Dale is about an hour south of Buffalo, NY.

A black cat disappears into a bank of tiger lilies, prayer ribbons stir on a puff of air.  On Cassadaga Lake, afternoon sun glints off the water in darts of light that drift ashore like summoned souls.

Spirit summoning has been going on for over 150 years at Lily Dale, home to the world's largest Spiritualist community and over 40 registered mediums.

Victorian cottages feature quaint woodwork.
Belief in the ability to communicate with the dead (or so-called dead in Lily Dale speak) has been around for millennia but Spiritualism as an organized religion got its start in Western New York in the 1840s.  Spiritualists believe that the ability to communicate with spirits of the deceased is not something you're born with but is a skill that can be learned.  The Lily Dale Assembly offers classes year 'round in everything from reading auras and energy healing to mediumship.

With my interest piqued by a recent HBO documentary, I arrived here on a hot August day.  It seemed inconsiderate to call my grandparents from the back of beyond just to say "Luv ya!" and the likelihood of Amelia Earhart responding to a query by a random Torontonian seemed nil, so I didn't have an appointment with a medium.  Instead I wandered around, poking in the museum, the bookshop, along the lanes of Victorian-era cottages.  Bits of a lecture on chakras floated out of the auditorium, the Assembly Hall was packed for service with seen--and unseen?--souls.
Cassadaga Lake, New York.

Services have been held at Inspiration Stump since 1898. 
In search of Inspiration Stump, I headed into the Leolyn Woods, said to be an energy vortex.  A rare bit of virgin forest remaining in this part of New York State, the Leolyn Woods are a shade-dappled cathedral adorned with moss, fern and mushrooms.  Gorgeous.  And "so-called dead" quiet.  Not a bird flew or chirped, not a chipmunk scrambled.  Leaves hung in absolute stillness as though I were standing in an enchanted belljar, caught among the trees like a spirit snagged in the strands of one of the witchballs hanging in the window of Lily Dale's bookshop.

Urban born and bred me often gets a little bush fever if I stray too far from the city but it seemed the forest at Lily Dale went from serene (if too serene) to panic-inducing in a snap.
An inexplicable crunch on the empty path behind me, then another even closer.  Dear Reader, I ran.
Past the black cat and fluttering prayer flags, past the  incoming lookie-loos, into the van and past the gate, basically fleeing until I reached a mall an hour away.
Sipping a cappuccino, enjoying the prosaic scene, I mused that while hanging at the mall could be considered only so-called living, it was easier on the nerves than hanging out in the bush with the so-called dead.

For more on this unusual chapter in Western New York history including more photos and a trailer for the HBO documentary No One Dies in Lily Dale, check out my article on
And if you've got a comment or experience to share, leave it below!