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AMERICAN ALBUM

Just a sleepy little town--with plenty of spirit : Tiny hamlet is a citadel of necromancy, where people flock to commune with the dearly departed.

September 28, 1992|MARK EHRMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

LILY DALE, N.Y. — A sign in the Maplewood Hotel says: "Please no readings, seances or healings in the hotel lobby. Thank you." Such measures would hardly be deemed necessary anywhere else, but in this tiny hamlet in southwestern New York state, communing with the spirit world is so commonplace that some areas apparently have to be reserved exclusively for interaction between the living.

Founded in 1879 by liberal-minded social reformers known as "Free-Thinkers"--Susan B. Anthony spoke here in 1891--Lily Dale (pop. 150) calls itself "a community dedicated to the science, philosophy and religion of Spiritualism." To own property here, you must be a member of the Church of Spiritualism--an indigenous American religion begun in the mid-1800s and predicated on the continuity of life after death as well as the ability to communicate across that threshold.

"A Spiritualist believes that life is eternal, the soul is eternal," explains Fanny M. Swift, president of the Lily Dale Assembly, the town's governing body. Swift, though a third generation Spiritualist, is not a medium. "Not everybody in the religion is," she says, although she believes that "by some special gift or education, mediums are able to develop their ability to contact past souls." Indeed, before they can ply their trade here, mediums must first be tested by the Assembly.

Hence, things that go bump in the night here barely engender comment. Many of the townsfolk sport cute shingles outside their houses advertising their psychic services as a medium or healer. And while the town boasts its own Lilliputian post office, hotel and restaurant, nobody here bothers about the fact that there's no cemetery. In Lily Dale, it seems, the dead are never far away, anyway.

Absent are any oppressive Gothic elements usually associated with necromancy. Lily Dale's landscape is dominated by picturesque Victorian houses flying Old Glory, pink flamingos and other bits of American kitsch. It's almost as if Ozzie and Harriet decided to clasp hands with the Cleavers and tune into spirits of relatives long-departed.

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During the summer (except for private readings, all activities, events and workshops occur only between the last weekend of June and Labor Day), the town also offers inexpensive workshops not only on spirit contact but on Mayan civilization, Native American healing practices, UFOs, shamanic drumming and many other topics unrelated to Spiritualism.

"We've enriched our Spiritualist program because there's a need for that," Swift says. "A diversified program that includes Spiritualism plus healing, nutrition and dealing with pressures of life helps people to be better human beings."

Still, it's the afterlife that generates most of the excitement here.

"I'm getting an Annie or an Anne. Does anybody know someone by that name in the spirit world?" intones Gretchen Lazaroni to the 100 or so visitors who have gathered for the afternoon Message Service. One of the most popular events at Lily Dale, it usually takes place around Inspiration Stump, a concrete-encased tree stump in the woods, believed to possess special qualities. Four times a day, local and visiting mediums get up in front of the crowd and relate messages from beyond.

"I have an Aunt Anne that's dead," answers a young woman with curly dark hair. Aunt Anne, Lazaroni tells her, wants her to enjoy her trip. "You're going on a vacation, right? First to the South and then to the West." The dark-haired woman nods affirmatively.

Most of the mediums' messages are of this order--travel in the future; a relative will have a child or twins; or maybe it's only a great uncle who died of tuberculosis wanting to say hello. Some are vague. Others specific enough to be impressive when they're confirmed. But beyond all the theatrics, what purpose do these messages serve?

"It gives them knowledge and comfort that people they loved are still around," says Lazaroni, who also gives private readings at Lily Dale. "They can get guidance and warnings about things that may be coming up." Of course, many people want the spirit world to make decisions for them, but, Lazaroni cautions, that's not the way it works. "It's still your life," she says. "You're in charge."

Another important component of Spiritualism is healing. Twice a day, a laying on of hands service is held in the Healing Temple. As soothing organ music plays, anyone who feels the need can take a seat in front and have healing energies channeled through the healers and into their bodies.

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Many visitors do reel off unexplainable tales of healing and clairvoyance; others claim all they get are general truths that can apply to anyone.

"I didn't come here skeptical," says David DeLambo, a sociologist from the Bronx who wants to find out about his mother, who died of cancer a week earlier. Still, after a message and two readings, DeLambo isn't totally convinced that any contact was made. "I don't know what to make of all of it," he says. "I guess all I'm willing to say for sure is that this is a pretty interesting place."

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