Where the dead don’t die: Exploring the Lilydale spiritualist community
You’d be forgiven for thinking that nothing ever happens in Lilydale; it was designed that way, after all. It’s the picture-perfect American town, one filled with ornate timber frame houses, carpeted with wide verdant lawns, and speckled with maples and hemlocks, which, with the arrival of autumn, have a tendency to turn the shade of honey. It’s charming – a slice of America’s past served with a smile. And while Lilydale might seem like any other town in the prosperous suburbs beyond the urban sprawl of New York, it is entirely unique. Because, famously, no one dies in Lilydale.
Founded in 1879, when the spiritualist movement was at its peak, Lilydale is located in the Town of Pomfret on the east side of Cassadaga Lake in Southwestern New York State. Its founders envisioned that this lakeside idyll would eventually be home to a community entirely made up of spiritualists. For nearly 140 years, that has been the reality. Over the last century and a half, Lilydale has been the centre of American spiritualism, with mediumship – the practice of talking to the dead – as every day an occurrence as dialling the telephone.
Some of the mediumship ceremonies that the residents of Lilydale have taken part in over the years include communicating with the dead via lo-fi megaphones; engaging in automatic clairvoyance, in which messages from the spirit world are scribbled on a chalkboard; and services at the remains of a felled tree known as ‘Inspiration Stump’, where the town’s mediums once gathered to communicate messages from the dead to those wishing to get in touch with their deceased loved ones. Today, the mediums use microphones and the stump has been replaced with a concrete replica.
Despite being quite unlike any other neighbourhood in America, Lilydale rarely draws attention to itself. Yes, it attracts hundreds of people every year, but the town has managed to avoid turning into an out-and-out tourist attraction. Think ‘clairvoyance retreat’, rather than ‘necro-theme park’. It is a place of healing, where, according to the town’s website: “People come to renew, to expand, to connect, to explore.” That is, of course, if they’re willing to pay. Mediumship, as you can imagine, isn’t massively lucrative, and many of the professional mediums who live in Lilydale also moonlight elsewhere.
Every summer, flocks of spiritualists migrate to Lilydale with the hope of receiving messages from the other side. When the sun allows, the town’s 30 or so mediums – all of whom have been certified by the Lily Dale Assembly, the community’s governing body – stand outside their colourful victorian cottages; advertising their services with microphones in hand. As well as private readings, Lilydale’s mediums also take part in group services. Most of them work in the same way. First, the medium receives a message from a spirit, and then they try and identify who the spirit is trying to communicate with from the audience. The medium might start by asking: “Does anyone have a relative who worked on the railroads?” and hands will shoot up. It is then the medium’s job to communicate with the spirit and ask the audience increasingly specific questions, such as: “did they smoke Marlboros?” or “did they live in Buffalo?”. If all goes according to plan, slowly, all of the hands but one will go down, at which point the conversation can begin.
The nature of mediumship and clairvoyance means that working in Lilydale can be a tricky business. The people who come here have usually lost a close relative and are seeking closure or reconciliation; they don’t pay money to recount their fondest memories of the deceased over a cup of chamomile. While Spiritualism is often seen as a quick-fix for grief, life in Lilydale would suggest that this couldn’t be further from the truth. It’s true that, historically, interest in mediumship has surged at times of war and bloodshed, (Abe Lincoln visited Lilydale after the death of his son in the civil war) but it’s important to remember that, at its peak, spiritualism was more than a movement; it was a religion. While faith in the spirit world is no longer as prevalent as it was, the mediums at Lilydale continue to promote the idea that visitors to the town can only expect to communicate with a loved one if they’re willing to take a leap of faith and commit: they are asked to mediate and, when they leave the town, to carry on the work they started in the town behind the tall trees, the town where the dead don’t die.