What It's Really Like To Talk To Dead People

Illustrated by Anna Sudit.
When I was a kid, I had an imaginary friend: a girl from the 19th century who I’d talk to every now and then. We’d discuss what happened in the world since she left and our very different childhoods that were separated by more than 100 years. I never thought she was real. I knew she was in my head, that she was nothing at all. But, medium Reverend Celeste Elliott disagrees. She says my friend was very much real. She was just dead.
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Elliott knows all about this other-world connection. She's been experiencing it for as long as she can remember. In elementary school, she could see her classmates’ imaginary friends (or “spirit friends,” as she calls them) and spook kids out with accurate descriptions. This combined with an ability to walk up to people and relay very on-point messages made Elliott realize she was different — that she knew things others didn’t.
Fortunately, she comes from a long line of mediums, including her mother, who introduced Elliott to Spiritualism. A New Age religion that believes the soul continues to evolve after death, Spiritualism borrows heavily from other religions — particularly Protestantism — in ritual and tradition, but it’s flexible on other things, allowing for the church to be divided on issues like reincarnation. But, it is a stickler for its core tenet: Life after death can be proven through communication with spirit.
Nowhere is this idea more palpable than in Lily Dale, NY, where Elliott lives. It’s a whisper of a town about an hour outside Buffalo that also happens to be the largest Spiritualist community in the world. (You might know it from the 2011 HBO documentary No One Dies in Lily Dale.) Every summer, its population swells to 700, as mediums come to work, tourists come for readings, and part-time residents come to enjoy the woodsy enclave.
Elliott was a part-timer for years, making the trek north from Florida each summer when her work as a commercial photographer dried up. Because she was not yet a registered Lily Dale medium (you must pass its rigorous mediumship test), she could not practice. But, she volunteered where she could. And, at age 29, she became Lily Dale's youngest medium after spending the whole summer having reading after reading observed and graded.
Today, she lives there year-round, and her mother joins her in the summer. Elliott delights not in her ability to talk to the dead but to heal the living. Her readings aim to be positive, and information is provided to help, to guide, and, of course, to heal — something that was immediately apparent in our conversation, which included a reading. And, while not everything she said during it felt completely right, it was more than enough to send my skeptic into hiding.
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Ahead, Elliott discusses what it’s actually like to talk to spirit.
Illustrated by Anna Sudit.
By second grade, you knew you were different, but what were you told?
"Nobody ever told me that I was wrong or that it was stupid or whatever. So, it was natural. I was believed, which made it a safe environment. And, they never expected me to perform on command. The only time we'd have to talk about it is if I was afraid."
When were you afraid?
"When I could feel a spirit person, but they wouldn’t talk to me. If you feel someone’s there, and they won't talk to you — that's just creepy. I had to learn that it was okay to ignore them or ask questions. Why are you here? What do you want?"
How does that go over? Do they listen?
“Yes, absolutely. Every once in a while, someone will need some prompting, but it’s rare. It’s not what it’s made out to be.”
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When you say you feel that they're there, what’s the sensation?
"It's just as if you had someone standing next to you in an elevator. And, if you closed your eyes, you would still be aware of their presence."
Do you actually see them, or do you just feel them?
"Both. I have a visual sometimes, mostly internals but sometimes externals. I also do smell and taste. And, then there's clairaudience. It's a different-sounding voice than my own, but it's not scary."
Are “externals” what I think they are — actually seeing the person?
"Yes, it's when you are seeing someone that appears solid — like you or I."
So, there’s no distinction?
"Ummm — no."
That’s terrifying! Do you think they’re real at first?
"Yeah, yeah. Hospitals are terrible for me. Funeral homes are terrible, too. Oftentimes, when I go to funerals, I spend most of the time talking to the guest of honor."
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Illustrated by Anna Sudit.
No! What do they want to talk about?
"It's a bit like being around someone who just had a baby. They want to talk about and share the experience of becoming a mom. They want to share the experience of going into spirit and what they've seen and experienced since then. They'll talk about showing up at their relatives’ houses. They'll point out to me — if it's an open casket — what they're wearing, and they'll point out who picked that out. And, they’ll talk about what they've done since they crossed — who they've seen on the other side. The family members that they've come to see and visit that are still living. Sometimes they'll want to pass along a message, and sometimes not. Sometimes they're just happy to observe."
And, why are hospitals so terrible? I mean, I can imagine why…
"Well, they’re just a hotbed of nurses, doctors, and patients that are all in spirit. Most of them know they are in spirit, but they hang out anyway. They usually want to be of service and comfort — even people who don't consider themselves mediumistic have reported experiencing this."
Most of them know they’re in spirit — what about the ones that don’t?
"I think they're just confused. It reminds me of when you’re a kid and someone wakes you up, and you don’t remember it later; they have to be reminded what happened. They might ask, ‘What do I do now.' And, you say, 'Well, ask to go home.' And, then within a minute or so they're gone."
What do you think “home” is to a spirit?
"The reason I put it that way is because they talk about feeling such incredible comfort and joy in the spirit world. You are never more comfortable than when you are surrounded by people who know and love you. We come down here and have our little experience, but in the end, we return. 'Home' is the only word I have to describe the way they describe it themselves, the sensation they give me."
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So, do you have a sense of what it feels like to die?
"Yeah, I really do. They all say it is an overwhelming feeling of relief, of joy, and of comfort. It is a warmth from the inside out — that is really 10 times what you can experience on this plane of existence.”
What do you think it's like to be a spirit?
"My understanding is that it's somewhat similar to this except that you can travel by the speed of thought and with thought. And, you don't have to sleep or eat. Your understanding of people is far broader because you're so much more in tune with the universe at large rather than just having to focus on yourself and your mission. They're not that different. If they were good at something in this life, they will be good at it in the next. But, if there was something they were absolutely terrible with, then that's not going to be their expertise. They're not fully evolved. They're not God. They're not omnipresent. They're not omnipotent. They're the best versions of themselves."
Illustrated by Anna Sudit.
But, and this might be a stupid question, what do they do all day?
"Well, they don’t really experience time like us. I think a lot of them come and go — the idea that they stay in one place is kind of a misconception. Just because they're dead doesn't mean they don't have a life. They have things that they're working on, and they want to learn and they want to grow. There are places they want to see, and people they want to visit."
Are you able to talk to people you knew when they were alive?
"Absolutely. I have relatives that come to visit me that I talk with, that I acknowledge their presence. Sometimes they have something significant to say, and sometimes they just want to drop by and say ‘hi.’ I get excited when that happens."
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What’s it like when they’re actually talking?
“I am mostly visual, so I see things in my mind’s eye. It can be a very quick kind of movie. Then I sort of have a lexicon worked without spirit also. If they hand me an apple, that generally means I know the person sitting in front of me was a teacher or that they were a teacher. And, there’s symbolism, too. They can show me an almost black-and-white picture, and I know that it's in the past. A color photo generally means it's a person that's alive that I'm supposed to be talking about.”
Why do spirits always want to talk about how they died?
"Well, I demand they tell me who they are and that they provide some evidence of that. Spiritualism is evidence-based in offering proof of the continuity of life after death, and I think that's why you see a lot of similarities in readings and why everything follows a little pattern."
What is that proof to you?
"Just the fact that spirits come through, and you know things that you couldn't otherwise know. And, I don't remember my readings when they're over unless it's something really shocking or unique."
So, how can anyone develop their intuition and medium ability?
“You have to learn to trust yourself and trust spirit. The number-one way to develop it is meditation. I once heard someone describe it as a very selfish act. It sounded shocking at the time, but in many ways, it is. It’s taking the time to develop your relationship with spirit. You have to give yourself credit and know that spirit is trying to talk to you and watch out for you. Incorporate that into your life a little more and then just read, maybe take a class, and meditate — it comes so much more quickly than people realize.”
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