Christine Wicker's book, "Lily Dale," explores America's oldest Spiritualist community - a place where it's commonplace to commune with the spirits of dead loved ones. This account of Spiritualist views of the afterlife is excerpted and adapted from "Lily Dale" with permission of HarperSanFrancisco.

Spirits don't often talk about life after death, and the Spiritualists themselves differ on what happens. They don't agree on how long the spirits stick around to converse. Some think spirits aren't available right after death because they're too mixed up about their states. Others think spirits linger for only a short while and then go off to do whatever spirits do. And then there are those who think that the spirits stay available as long as anyone on earth still remembers them.

Some Spiritualists believe in reincarnation; some don't. "There's going to be skid marks on the clouds if they try to make me come back," Lily Dale historian Joyce LaJudice said.

Spiritualist heaven, called Summerland, does not have streets of gold, but it does have flowers. Lily Dale resident Richard O'Brocta said his dead wife has visited him many times and taken him on a tour of her Summerland house.

"She lives in a little white house with a stream running by it," he told me. "It has flowers around it. She's taken me there to see it. I've been inside. She works in a hospital taking care of babies that died. She helps raise them. Everyone has a job. People are the age they were at their happiest time in life. I'll be thirty-two."

I never heard anybody talk about their dead relatives having met God. The most specific inquiry regarding divine whereabouts that I ran across came from a book by the late California Episcopal James Pike, who believed he had contacted his son. This particularly surprised the bishop, because his liberal theology hadn't convinced him that life after death exists, but the messages that came from his son did. The bishop asked the boy whether he had seen Christ. His son answered through a medium that he had been told he wasn't ready to meet Jesus. He also said Jesus was talked about in the afterlife as a seer and mystic but not as a savior.

Perhaps not coincidentally, the message, which came through a medium, dovetails with Spiritualist thinking about Jesus. There are Christian Spiritualists and some Lily Dale devotees who claim membership in traditional faiths as well as adherence to Spiritualism. But the predominate philosophy in Lily Dale is not Christian. Many Spiritualists speak of Jesus as the greatest of all mediums, and they sometimes use his healing miracles as examples to bolster their contention. They don't believe he died for our sins or that he was the Son of God, except in the sense that everyone is a child of God.

As an aside, Lily Dale's Arthur Ford once gave Bishop Pike a reading on Toronto television. The information Ford relayed from Pike's son was so convincing that it made international news. Later, journalist Allen Spraggett, who set up the interview, wrote a biography of Ford. In looking over Ford's papers after his death Spraggett discovered that the medium had researched the boy and that many of his amazing revelations came from newspaper clippings.

Ford's fraud shook Spraggett's confidence in him but didn't destroy it. Like many before and after him, the journalist held to his contention that "something" real was happening amid and despite the fakery. This ability to hold to faith in the face of contradictions maddens Spiritualism's critics. Justly so, I think.

But blind tenacity isn't confined to Spiritualism. It's the heart's blood of religious experience. Religion says people will be transformed into new beings. They aren't. And faith sails right on. Religion says God will answer prayers. He doesn't. And faith sails right on.

One of the most widely discussed and debated gifts of spiritual thinking is the white light that people report seeing while in comatose, near-death states. White light also figures prominently in Spiritualist thinking. "Go to the light" is often what mediums tell poltergeists, whom they believe are merely confused spirits that don't know they're dead yet.

Anne [Gehman, a Lily Dale Spiritualist teacher], a firm believer in the white light, also gave us some hints about what would happen once we entered the glow. Jesus didn't figure in her stories, but a sense of purpose did. She told our class that we would all have tasks in the afterlife. We would use our skills to help others. At the break, as we stood outside the building, the former policeman asked me what I thought of Anne's ideas about heaven.

"I don't know," I said.

"I'm not interested," he said flatly. "Sounds boring. When I go to heaven, I want to be a Viking."

I laughed. "I don't think there's going to be a lot of rape and pillage, if that's what you want."

"I can do without that," he said. "But to do battle. To risk everything you have, even your life, in the cause of something you believe in, to help other people, to save them, that's the greatest thrill in life. That's what I'd like more of in the afterlife."

When I repeated that story to Jackie Lunger, a diminunitive medium who once wore a T-shirt that read, "Small medium at large," she replied coolly that Anne's ideas were right and heaven was probably boring. "That's why everyone wants to come back here," she said. "This is where the action is."

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