Communicating with the Dead

Most people my age would take a trip to a village ruled by fortunetellers for its ironic value, but when I pulled up to the spiritualist community of Lily Dale, New York, I genuinely believed I would reach the ghost … Read More

By / October 31, 2007

Most people my age would take a trip to a village ruled by fortunetellers for its ironic value, but when I pulled up to the spiritualist community of Lily Dale, New York, I genuinely believed I would reach the ghost of my father. After all, I had in the past. My father died when I was 20. We held the funeral service in the same Roman Catholic Church where he had been an altar boy. All three of his wives—two Jewish and named Linda, one Catholic and named Ginny—and all six of his children sat in the front row. As the rest of our dad’s family stuck out their tongues for communion and made the sign of the cross, my Jewish brothers Paul and Daniel and I stayed in our seats. The priest talked about how we’d be reunited with my dad in heaven, and I wondered whether this applied to us as Jews. If someone had told me that forsaking my Jewish beliefs meant I’d see my father again, no doubt I’d have done it. Here was my basic understanding of the two faiths present in my family: one focused on what happened when you were alive, and one on what happened after you were dead. So once someone close to me was dead, I shifted from a Jewish to a Christian point of view. The night before my father was buried I prayed to God to be reunited with him, and I fell asleep fantasizing about blasting Billy Joel’s “Only The Good Die Young,” his favorite song, from a boom box outside his funeral. I hummed it under my breath during the service, clutching the crucifix the priest had given me in one fist and the hand of my six-year-old brother in the other. Losing my father convinced me that Christianity was like magic life insurance: Believe and there was no death. Once I started thinking about the afterlife, I began to notice all the opportunities society offers to connect with the dead, from the five-dollar fortuneteller living next door to me in a basement apartment in the West Village to the young man in pancake makeup who came on TV every afternoon with the promise of “crossing over.” Because my father’s religion was all about saints and spirits and holy ghosts, it was easy for me to believe in his spirit. Suddenly I found profundity in things that had once seemed invisible or ridiculous to me before his death.

I'm not the only one willing to pay for a conduit to the Great Beyond. Around the country, an entire movement has been summoned up to service the needs of bereaved relatives desperate for one last chance to commune with the dead. TV psychic John Edward (watch him here) has managed to cash in on the trend twice, starring in shows on the SciFi Channel and Lifetime. Even science is getting into the game: University of Arizona psychology professor Gary Schwartz has published The Afterlife Experiments, in which he scrutinizes published, peer-reviewed studies of mediums to figure whether they pass muster with the scientific method. They do indeed, he says. Ten years after my father’s death, I decided it was time to see whether he was still with me. I wanted to hear from him, but even more, I wanted confirmation that he was hearing me every time I spoke to him silently, with my eyes closed. And consulting a spiritualist medium didn’t feel like a compromise to my Jewish identity. It was my Jewish mother who’d long ago given me faith in after-death communication. Just after my father died, on a trip to England, my mom met with a man named Mr. Molinari, a medium at the Hogwarts-esque London College of Psychic Studies (LCPS). At dinner the next day she insisted I visit him as well.
I protested. I was about to be 21 and what had happened seemed so unreal to me—my healthy, 54-year-old father rendered paralyzed and speechless, then dead, of a spontaneous brain hemorrhage—that I had to work constantly to convince myself of the reality of it. If I was ever to "get over it," I couldn't allow myself to believe contact was possible. A waiter appeared at our table with a silver platter of marzipan fruits. I had always hated the chalky paperweights—simulacra of more delicious things. My mother reached for a "grape," then offered the tray to me. "Yuck!" I said, "I hate marzipan." "Fine by me," she said, in a singsong voice, "But Daddy loved it." "OK," I said, gesturing up to heaven, "Daddy, if you like marzipan, tell me tomorrow." At LCPS the next day, Mr. Molinari gestured for me to follow him into a musky room on the third floor. "Different mediums work different ways,” he said. “I see things. I am going to close my eyes, and I want you to do the same. Then concentrate on nothing. Just be here and give me a minute. Then I'll tell you what I see." He had a soft British accent and he didn't seem at all the type of person to be involved with the dead. If I saw him on the street, I probably would've taken him for a small business owner—the kind of man who runs the family sweet shop. I closed my eyes and put my hot palms on my knees, thinking, Please God let this be real. First, Mr. Molinari saw a woman. He thought it was my grandmother, and she said my apartment needed plants. Disappointing. Then another woman, this one all in black. With her was, according to Mr. Molinari, “Your father.” Chills. I was a reasonably young girl—anyone would assume both my parents were still living. And my mother had promised she'd told Mr. Molinari nothing. She'd made my appointment over the phone, giving the receptionist just my first name, so as not to give anything away. I stayed silent, waiting for more. He said some cheesy things, the sort of things a person would think a grieving child would need to hear—be strong, follow your heart, your father will always be with you—but then there was a surprise. "One more thing before you go," said Mr. Molinari, "And I must admit, this has me confused. Your father is holding out a tray of those little fruits Italians make out of almond paste, and he says, "This is not just for proof, but also to remind you to treat yourself once in a while.’ Do you understand what that means?"
Wow, right?

This story has served me many times in the past eleven years, most recently to justify my trip to Lily Dale. Founded in the mid-1800s, this town of small, ramshackle, pastel-colored Victorians—more summer camp than gothic hideaway—about an hour southwest of Buffalo, in Chautauqua County, not far from Lake Erie, is the home of the spiritualist movement. While its members consider themselves a congregation, they are much more focused on connecting with the dead than with God. Driving there with my friend Betony, who also doesn’t not believe in ghosts, I was sick with anticipation. I had reserved a reading via email and immediately regretted it because, as all my friends said, “She can just Google you then!” But I didn’t care if my medium had access to facts about me—if she said something authentic, I would recognize it. We rang my medium’s doorbell, but no one stirred. Inside the screen door was a little podium covered in pamphlets with the medium’s headshot and posters listing her upcoming talks, as if she were a life coach rather than a conduit for the dead. I motioned to one of the more ridiculous posters and whispered, “Maybe it’s best if I miss this appointment!” Just as we were skulking out the screen door, we heard a frantic voice coming from inside. “Just a second! I hear you!” A plump, sixtyish lady with thinning white hair and the face of the fairy godmother in Disney’s Cinderella emerged from the house, radiating heat. “I was answering some emails because I assumed you had cancelled. You’re late. Which one of you is Rebecca? Come on in. You,” she said, motioning to Betony in an oddly accusatory fashion, “can sit outside here, or you can go over to the Crystal Cove and do some shopping.” She said “Crystal Cove” with the same anticipatory tone one might use for “Barneys Warehouse Sale.” Betony scurried off and I entered the inner sanctum, which was a heavily calicoed room punctuated by a loud yet ineffective air conditioner. My medium, shiny with sweat, opened the reading with a prayer and asked in a snobbish, world-weary tone whether I wanted to connect with any loved ones. “Of course,” I answered, sounding more hostile than I meant to. “Why else would I be here?” “Well, I also provide general advice and guidance,” she said, clearly a bit insulted I hadn’t grasped her role as a New-Age shrink.
I wish I could say this bumpy beginning was in no way indicative of the amazing insights revealed by my medium as she became a conduit for my father. I wish I could tell you she’d given me news direct from Daddy: he had heard everything I said to him in ICU, he loved my New York apartment, he’d left me a fortune in a Swiss bank account and here was the number. But our reading, which was five minutes shorter than I had paid for ($60 bucks), consisted of my medium telling me my maternal grandmother was in the room (Rosie is not dead, thank God) along with my brain-injured brother (he’s not dead either!). Then she asked me about my ghostwriting projects in New York and bragged about her own, insisting we compare rates. Finally, she asked me who my agent was. I left the reading livid. Betony could tell immediately by my expression that my medium had been a sham, but I think we were both surprised by how emotional I was. It was clear I’d really believed I would hear from my dad. On our second day at Lily Dale, we stopped at a yard sale in front of a church. Among the piles of trinkets, LP’s, old toys and dresses was a solitary 1980’s-album-cover button: a young Billy Joel, leaning against a brick wall. Betony pressed it into my palm and said, “Your dad sent this to you.” After all the little moments like this—the time I got lost in a part of Queens I’d never been to, only to end up at the cemetery where my dad is interred, the time I put a dollar in a slot machine I knew he’d love, and hit the jackpot—why did I need to pay someone to connect with my father when it was so clear I was already connecting with him myself? Commodifying something this ethereal was vaguely pathetic. I still believe there is some life beyond this one—I just finally see through the people who claimed to be the gatekeepers to it. I’ll admit that I’m mystified by the persistence of my belief amidst such convincing proof to the contrary. But believing in a dead loved one is just faith, and what is faith if not the refusal to buy what everyone else is selling?

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Rebecca Diliberto has previously covered beloved-but-irrational phenomenons in her stint blogging The Secret. She's previously written about being the child of intermarriage in "The Play-It-Down Jew."

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