Author Archives: Roy Stemman

Government pays respects to the dead in a virtual world

Memorial website EnglishA government department has decided to extend its responsibilities from this world to the next by launching a £100,000 memorial website which will require annual running costs of £78,000. It will give friends and relatives the opportunity to set up a page for deceased people on which they can pay tributes and make offerings.

I learned about this unusual government involvement in matters of life and death during a visit to Hong Kong from which I have just returned. An intriguing aspect of the fascinating culture in this former British colony is how ancient and modern beliefs happily co-exist, without apparent conflict.

Where else, for example, would a government assist its people in honouring the dead by setting up a special website, viewable in Chinese and English?

Worshipping ancestors has been a preoccupation of Hong Kong’s population for many centuries based, I understand, on a mixture of Taoist and Buddhist beliefs. Many of the rituals involve making offerings and burning incense, in homes and at temples, to solicit help or special blessings from the dearly departed.

Roy with paper productsTo western minds, such customs may seem strange. Despite my attempts to be as open-minded as possible, I confess I found it impossible not to smile when viewing the items on display at a shop selling nothing but lookalike products made of paper that are destined to perish in flames soon after they are purchased.

Their purpose is to ensure that loved ones in the Great Beyond are kept well stocked with things they may need for a better afterlife. Once burned, buyers believe the offerings are magically transformed into the real thing. Specialist shops cater for all tastes: jewellery, dim sum (a well-known Chinese lunch food), clothes, beer and money, are just some of the items I encountered on its shelves. I even came across a paper version of false teeth (see picture). Well, I guess there’s no point in sending grandfather something succulent to eat in the next world if he can’t bite into it.

Cheuk Wing-hing, director of the department responsible for creating the website, describes it as an “easy, dignified and personalised way” of remembering ancestors. It might eventually replace the twice-a-year trek that many families make to tend their relatives’ graves.

As well as allowing up to 100,000 users to write about their loved ones and upload images and videos, it also offers a range of emoticons – graphic representations of fruit, flowers, candles, roast pigs, chickens and money, paper versions of which are popular as burnt offerings. Users can also upload emoticons of their own making.

The website has cost around £100,000 (HK$ 1 million) to create and is likely to be popular with the younger generation. Within two days of its launch on 10 June, 2010, around 1,600 people had registered an account and a thousand memorial pages had been set up.

What none of the media reports explained was why it was Hong Kong’s Food and Environmental Health Department (FEHD) that felt it necessary to spend part of its budget on such a website. I can only assume that it hopes to improve the air quality by reducing the amount of smoke escaping into Hong Kong’s often hazy atmosphere, and reduce the amount of food that is “offered” to the dead at public and private shrines and which, as far as I could see, never gets eaten by the living or the dead.

Where there’s a will …

Tony Chan Chun-chuenAnother belief I find difficult to swallow is the ancient art of fung shui, which seems to control or shape the lives of large numbers of Hong Kong’s residents. Buildings have to face in certain directions, rooms have to be furnished in a specific way, and all manner of other ” rules” must be observed in order to have the right life balance and derive the greatest benefit from one’s surroundings.

A staunch believer in this geomantic system was Nina Wang Kung Yu-sum, a Hong Kong tycoon, who apparently left her HK$100 billion estate to fung shui master Tony Chan Chun-chuen on whom she doted.

But her 2006 will was declared a forgery in February this year and Chan was promptly arrested and is now awaiting trial, which is awfully bad luck – or is it just bad fung shui? During my visit, I learned that Chan is seeking to have his own forensic experts examine the will in the hope of having the judgment overturned.

I’ll be returning to Hong Kong later in the year and look forward to reporting back on other beliefs and events in this always fascinating part of the world.

A Vincent van Gogh now adorns my wall

I have just bought a beautiful Vincent van Gogh oil on canvas painting. It’s a stunning scene of swirling clouds dancing in a blue sky above undulating golden fields. Immediately recognisable as being in the style of van Gogh, it carries his familiar signature: Vincent.

The highest price ever paid at auction for a van Gogh painting was US$82 million (£53.6m) in 1990, so I reckon I’ve got a bargain. Mine cost £140.

What’s more, I saw van Gogh produce the 70cm x 50cm painting with my own eyes and videoed the event.  It took him just 11 minutes.

Now, before you point out that van Gogh has been dead for 120 years, let me explain the phenomenon in greater detail.

Although Vincent apparently produced the painting, he wasn’t visible to me or the 50 or so people who had gathered in a public hall in Petworth, West Sussex, to witness the event.  Instead, he used the tall, well-built body of Florencio Anton, a 37-year-old Brazilian medium who was making a brief visit to the United Kingdom – his first – in order to raise funds for a school which his Scheilla Spiritist Group, a Brazilian-government approved charity, runs in Mussurunga to help needy children and poor families (click here for a YouTube video).

Guiding Florencio’s latex-gloved hands with impressive dexterity, much of van Gogh’s artistry was achieved by spreading paint around the canvas with his palms, then using a thumb or finger to build certain features, before adding finer details with brushes and finally signing the artwork.

When the result was held up to view, the audience applauded enthusiastically.

Two assistants on each side of him were needed at times to hold the canvases steady as his fast moving hands almost massaged the scenes to life with rapid movements after squeezing paint from an array of tubes on either side of the work area.

My colleague Danny Lee bought another of van Gogh’s works – a colourful flower display – and there were a further nine canvases that were up for sale at the end of the two-and-a-half hour demonstration (see panel at foot of this report).

The dead artists who apparently produced these included Renoir, Picasso, Modigliano and Miró.

Florencio says he became aware of spirit people at the age of eight and began developing his mediumship at the age of 11, producing spirit voices and automatic writing and first. Then dead artists began working through him and he has been giving public demonstrations for the past 20 years during which time he has produced over 5,000 paintings by over 100 artists. Each is said to be unique: he has never produced the same image more than once.

And yet, when he is not in a “hypnogogic state” – his term for trance – and being controlled by famous dead artists, Florencio insists that he cannot paint or draw well. He earns his living, instead, by teaching and working as a regression therapist. He is also studying to be a nurse.

Florencio gave his demonstration at Leconfield Hall, Petworth, on 30 April and followed this the next night with another presentation at Balham Spiritualist Church in South London. These meetings were organised by West Sussex medium and healer Christine Parkin in conjunction with Danish Spiritists with whom he has enjoyed a five-year association. Christine tells me he produced a further eight paintings by various artists at Balham. Before arriving in England he had been demonstrating daily in Denmark so, in total, he produced 100 works of art during one week in Europe. In Brazil, he demonstrates this form of mediumship just once a month.

So, how do we explain this impressive phenomenon? It seems to me there are three alternatives.

Sceptics will argue that he is a very talented man who is simply pretending  – consciously or subconsciously – to be controlled by the spirits of dead artists. There have been many accomplished artists, of course, who have fooled experts by producing paintings that appeared to be by famous old masters. Here, however, there is no attempt to pass off the pictures as originals: the methods used appear to be very different. What is also astonishing is the speed with which they are produced.

Another possibility is that Florencio’s higher consciousness has absorbed enough information about the work of famous artists to be able to produce paintings in their style. If this is the explanation, there would be no deception on Florencio’s part; he would simply be misinterpreting what happens to him in a trance and attributing it to outside forces, which brings us to the third possibility.

Could it be that Florencio Anton is actually possessed by spirits of famous artists who produce new paintings in the same style they used when alive? I asked him why, if that is so, they continue to paint pictures of Earth-like scenes. He told me that his understanding is that these scenes are not of our existence but of a plane of existence in the next world
that is close to Earth and similar in appearance.

That explanation doesn’t satisfy me, unless the discarnate people living in that realm of existence continue to dress as they did at the time of the artists’ earthly existence. But in some respects that’s a minor criticism.

I’m totally open to the possibility that Florencio Anton’s hands are being guided by dead artists, but without more convincing proof I must also keep an open mind as far as alternative explanations are concerned. And I’d be pleased to hear visitors’ views about what other
alternatives may need to be considered.

That said, there’s no denying that I am also extremely impressed with the speed of execution of these works of art, the variety of styles in which they are produced and the quality of the paintings.

And, best of all, I’m delighted to be the owner of a “new” Vincent van Gogh masterpiece and to know that the price I paid will be put to good use among poor families in Brazil. For that reason, I hope the Florencio Anton will continue to demonstrate his remarkable talent for many years to come.

Florencio's paintings on 30 April 2010

Chico Xavier: medium and superstar

Despite being predominantly Roman Catholic, Brazil is currently celebrating the centenary and paranormal achievements of an incredible automatic writing medium – Francisco (Chico) Cândido Xavier – in a way that no other country has ever done before.

POSTAGE STAMP: the Brazilian Post Office has issued a first class stamp which depicts Chico autographing one of his many books, which Spiritists believe were dictated by spirits. It is the second time the South American country has featured Chico on its stamps: the first was his 50th birthday.

The new stamp went on sale on 2 April – the day on which he was born 100 years ago – and will continue to be used by the Brazilian postal services until December 2013. It recognises his dedication to others, humility and dignity.

MEDAL: the Brazil Mint has produced a commemorative medal  marking Chico’s centenary, which will be issued tomorrow – 16 April – to coincide with the opening of the 3rd Brazilian Spiritist Congress in Brasilia. The congress is part of the Brazilian Spiritist Federation’s “Chico Xavier Centennial Project”.

MOVIES: Chico Xavier: the Movie (see trailer at end of this post) debuted on 2 April – the day of his centenary. The film, which tells Chico’s life story, had already caught the imagination of the Brazilian media a month before its release, with a cover story about the famous medium in Brazil’s Time magazine.

Poster for Chico's movieLater this year, Twentieth Century Fox will release (on 3 September) Nosso Lar (in English, Our Home: the Astral City). This is based on a novel received by Chico from André Luiz, a doctor, describing his experiences on waking up in the spirit world (see second trailer). In doing so, it tackles many of the issues that people ask about life, death and the next world – at least, from a Spiritist perspective.

In addition to the above events, Chico’s remarkable achievements, both as a medium and a humanitarian, are being celebrated with a host of other events, including more films, TV documentaries, books and exhibitions, throughout Brazil.

I met Chico briefly when he visited England in 1965. A friendly, simple man with a ready smile and an ill-fitting wig, it was difficult to comprehend just how much impact his mediumship was having on Spiritism and Brazilians in general. He and physician Dr Waldo Vieira, who acted as translator, came to the UK and went on to the US to build relationships with Spiritualist organisations in both countries.

The purpose was also to create a foundation for Spiritism, which is based largely on the teachings of Allen Kardec and has a strong Christian theme as well as belief in reincarnation. His spiritual guide, Emmanuel, was said to have lived as Senator Publius Lentulus in Roman times before being reincarnated as Father Damian in Spain and then as a professor at the Sorbonne.

What made Chico special was his prolific output of books produced by automatic writing, which is known in South America as psychography. Over 400 books were written through his hand, including some in foreign languages in which he was not fluent, and he donated the copyright of all these works to be used by Spiritist charities to help the needy.

New medal for Chico's centenaryEach day, poor people queued outside his home in Uberaba to receive free food and for the opportunity to speak a few words with him. He was regarded by many as a guru and celebrities were among regular visitors to his home seeking advice from him or the spirits who communicated through him.

As for sceptics, Chico’s response was simple. The sheer output – around 100,000 handwritten pages – in different styles and on a diversity of subjects made it impossible for him to be the author. He was merely a channel.

Chico in his 90sI cannot help wondering what this simple, sincere soul will be making of the celebrations and superstar status that he now has. I think he will be amused and also pleased that the message of survival of death contained in his work is reaching an even wider audience.

Despite his advancing years, he continued to work until his death, on 30 June, 2002, the day on which Brazil won the World Cup. In doing so, he fulfilled an ambition, having said in a TV interview some years earlier that he hoped to die on a very happy day for his country, so that his death would not be remembered with sorrow.

Here’s a trailer for the biopic of Chico. It’s in Portuguese, but worth watching to catch a flavour of the movie:

And here’s a trailer with English subtitles for the Our Home: The Astral City movie, based on one of Chico’s books, which will be released in September:

Justice from the next world?

What must it be like to survive death and then have the pleasures of the next world overshadowed by the discovery that your loved ones are fighting over your possessions?

Your choices must be pretty limited. You could try influencing their actions (if the afterlife’s rules permit spiritual interference) or just leave them to get on with it.

Now, however, American medium Robert Hansen is offering an alternative. Thanks to the TLC television network, he’s offering to mediate in such disputes by communicating with the “owner” of the assets that the family is squabbling over.

As someone who has occasionally enjoyed the no-nonsense approach of Judge Judy in the “people’s court”, I can see why this series, called Paranormal Court, could appeal to many viewers.

Some critics are not enthusiastic, however, describing the concept as “returning conflict resolution and property disputes to medieval times”.

In a preview trailer, three cases have been revealed, to whet our appetites: “A mother and daughter battle over their loved one’s gold cross; a close-knit group of siblings is ripped apart after one allegedly steals their dead brother’s car, and a mother’s inability to let go of her deceased daughter strains her marriage to the breaking point.”

The third of these is a different issue altogether, but it will be interesting to see who benefits most from this experiment: the families, the deceased, the medium or the TV company.

I can’t help feeling, however, that the owners of the disputed property should have made things a lot easier for everyone by being more specific about what would happen to their belongings on their demise.

After all, where’s there’s a will, there’s a way.

… for prisoners, too

I can’t vouch for the website that carried this report, but if is to be believed (and there’s no reason why it shouldn’t) Dutch prisons have started hiring mediums in order to put inmates in touch with the dead.

The idea, apparently, is to assist their rehabilitation one release.

Clairvoyant Paul van Bree, one of those involved, says: “I tell them that dead relatives are doing well and that they love them. That brings them peace. Big strong men burst into tears. I sometimes reveal more than a psychologist or a prison welfare officer.”

Hang on, Paul. You tell them all the same thing? Aren’t there any spirit communicators who are ashamed that their loved ones’ actions have led to imprisonment? And isn’t the occasional murderer visited by his victim?

Mind you, it could make a good TV series: “Paranormal Prison”.

Joking aside, I know a number of Spiritualists who visit prisons, not to give evidence of the spirit world to inmates but to offer support and spiritual wisdom to those who have requested visits.

Psychic’s execution delayed… or waived?

Ali Sibat, the Middle East psychic who has been languishing in a Saudi Arabian prison for almost two years awaiting a death sentence to be carried out, was due to be beheaded on Good Friday.

According to a BBC news report on 1st April, the Lebanese Justice Minister had been in dialogue with the Saudi government about the sentence, on which I reported back in December.

It seems these discussions have borne fruit, resulting in – at the very least – a postponement of the barbaric sentence on the 49-year-old father of five. But his attorney, May al-Khansas, does not know whether her client’s decapitation has been waived or just postponed.

Friday is the day on which executions are usually carried out in Saudi Arabia… after noon prayers. But Lebanon’s justice minister, Ibrahim Najjar, told the attorney that her client’s execution would not take place as planned, on 2 April.

Ali Sibat’s only crime is that he appeared regularly on a satellite TV show in Lebanon, where psychics are very popular, dispensing advice and guidance to people who requested it.

It seems that he and most other people in his home country saw no conflict between his apparent paranormal powers and his Muslim beliefs. But Saudi’s religious police took a very different view and promptly arrested him when he visited Medina on a pilgrimage for the Hajj.

He was accused of witchcraft and told that if he signed a “confession” he would be released and sent home. It seemed like the best way out of a tricky situation and Ali Sibat complied.

Once he “confessed”, however, he was charged with the crime – even though no particular misdemeanour is specified – and a court found him guilty, sentencing his to death.

It was clear from a BBC radio interview that senior Lebanese government officials have been working hard behind the scenes in an attempt to get the Saudi Arabian government to overturn the judgement. But Ali Sibat’s legal representative was uncertain how successful those efforts would be in the long-term.

It could be that by the time you read these words, the Lebanese psychic will have had the death penalty lifted … or carried out.

Let us hope that growing international pressure will persuade the Saudis to overturn the court’s sentence and release the popular psychic whose future no one seems to have predicted.