A skeptical Anne Bokma visits the spiritualist haven of Lily Dale, N.Y., where communing with the dead is the town's claim to fame.
Published in The United Church Observer in June 2013
My friend Aukje and I are racing to be on time for the 1 p.m. "message service" at Inspiration Stump, located at the end of a quiet forest trail. Outdoor pews set in a semicircle face a metre-high hemlock stump with a cement seat as wide as a table.
Roped off like a sacred altar in the shade of a grove of ancient redwoods, this seat is considered the holiest hearth in all of Lily Dale, North America's oldest spiritualist community, located an hour outside Buffalo on Cassadaga Lake in western New York.
Since 1879, people have been coming to this exact same spot (some call it an "energy vortex") to listen to mediums deliver messages from the dead. The visitors push back their doubts in exchange for a few precious moments of being in the presence of someone they've loved and lost.
A group of about 80 people watches as a parade of six mediums - mostly women in flowing floral dresses - take to the outdoor stage one after another, selecting a lucky few whose pushy dead relatives clamour to make themselves known.
"I see a Henry or a Hank, an older man in a blue uniform," says one medium, moving to the bank of pews on the left.
A middle-aged woman in a red jacket tentatively raises her hand. "That could be my grandfather. His name was Henry and he fought in the war."
"I see a lot of water. I see a big ship. Your grandfather was in the navy - or he travelled here from another country by boat. Does that make sense?"
"Yes. He came here from England," says the woman.
The medium cocks her head a little as if someone is whispering in her ear. "He wants you to know, dear, that he has been there with you in times of great difficulty in your life and is watching over you. He wants you to know you are never alone."
"Thank you," the woman manages, before dissolving into tears.
Aukje and I look at each other and roll our eyes.