Throughout the world, and in many different kinds of cultures, there is a belief in ghosts: supernatural beings who were once human and have not gone on to an afterlife in a special place following death. In many cultures, it is believed that ghosts can be seen by and interact with humans. There are times when it is felt that ghosts can harm humans and at other times ghosts may help humans. In some cultures, it is believed that ghosts harm only those people who harmed them while they were living. On the other hand, there are cultures in which it is believed that ghosts are concerned by their relatives, particularly their descendants, and stay around to help them, especially in times of crises.
In some cultures, ghosts are associated with places, primarily places where they died a violent death through murder, war, or suicide. These ghosts may be visible to people who didn’t harm them and to people to whom they are not related. In some cultures, the ghosts associated with a place are neither beneficial nor harmful but are simply lost souls unable to continue their journey to the land of the dead.
A concern for ghosts, particularly a concern that ghosts can cause harm, has resulted in death rituals to ensure that the soul does not become a ghost and in some cultures concern for ghosts may be associated with ancestor worship.
Death rituals are often intended to help the soul of the deceased make the transition to the land of the dead and to do so with good feelings toward the living. In many cultures, death rituals symbolically and ritually purify the soul or spirit of the deceased so that it does not become polluting and dangerous to the living.
In the death rituals, there are often prescribed ways in which a corpse is to be treated and purification ceremonies for the people who may come into contact with it. In his book Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought, Pascal Boyer writes:
“The rituals are about what may happen to the living if they do not handle the corpses as prescribed.”
In many funerary rites, one of the goals is to prevent the dead from becoming harmful ghosts. Funerary rituals involve not only disposing of the dead body, but also could include offerings to help the soul on its journey and special incantations and songs.
In some cultures, the death rituals begin at the moment of death, and, in some cases, even prior to death when it is realized that death is imminent. While the death rituals in some cultures may end with the disposal of the corpse through burial, cremation, or some other means, in other cultures, the death rituals may continue for a fairly long time. In his book Ancestor Worship in Contemporary Japan, Robert Smith reports:
“The death of a person sets in motion a series of rites and ceremonies that culminates in the observance of a final memorial service, most commonly on the thirty-third or fiftieth anniversary of death.”
Writing about the Hittites in ancient Mesopotamia, Volkert Haas, in an essay in Civilizations of the Ancient Near East, writes:
“The ritual for the dead eased the transition of the deceased from the society of the living to that of the dead. The uninterred dead person prolonged his or her existence in this world as an aggressive, wandering ghost, threatening the society of the living.”
Also writing about ancient Mesopotamia, Walter Farber, in his essay in Civilizations of the Ancient Near East, writes:
“Ghosts of the dead could also haunt the living. The cause for their return was almost invariably that they had not been buried properly or had not received their fair share of funerary offerings.”
Among the Apache Indians, whose aboriginal territory is in the American Southwest, at the time of death, a ghost is released which has the power to harm the living unless it promptly travels to the afterworld and remains there. In his chapter on the Apache in the Handbook of North American Indians, Morris Opler reports:
“The newly deceased often resisted leaving the surroundings familiar to him and severing the bonds of kinship and association. How peacefully he departed depended on whether funerary practices had been properly performed. Even after entering the underworld a ghost might return to the land of the living to avenge some past injury. The visit of a ghost never failed to threaten, sicken, or destroy. Therefore, the protective measures considered appropriate at the time of death were immediately invoked and scrupulously followed.”
The burial rituals included the disposal of the body of the deceased as well as personal property. In addition, the burial party has to undergo certain rituals to ensure that the ghost does not follow them.
Among the Chilula Indians in California, the body of the deceased was traditionally addressed at the grave in an effort to discourage the spirit from lingering in the village. Following the funeral, the mourners, pallbearers, and grave diggers were ritually cleansed.
The Shawnee Indians held an annual feast to honor the spirits of the deceased. The feast was in the home where a table would be set with food for the spirits and a guest. specially selected for the role of speaker, would talk to them. In their book The Encyclopedia of Native American Religions, Arlene Hirschfelder and Paulette Molin report:
“Besides telling them that they are fondly remembered, and that the food provided has been prepared in their honor, the speaker may request that they do not disturb the living.”
On the Great Plains of North America, one of the Seven Sacred Rites of the Lakota is the Ghost Keeping Ceremony. Arlene Hirschfelderand Paulette Molin report:
“Through this ceremony the soul of a deceased person is kept in order to purify it and to assure its return to Wakan Tanka, the Creator, when it is ritually released. Besides making certain that the soul does not have to wander about the earth, the rite serves as a reminder of death to the living.”
The death rituals conducted by Hindus in Benares, India are done out of a concern for ghosts. In his book Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought, Pascal Boyer writes:
“…funerals conducted there are said to confer on the deceased a better destiny. The main point of the long rituals performed by specialized Brahmans is to turn the soul of the dead person from a pret, a malevolent ghost, into a pitr or ancestor.”
Names of the Dead
In many cultures throughout the world, the names of the dead are not spoken lest this act call their ghosts to return to the land of the living. Among the Apache Indians, for example, Morris Opler reports:
“As a precaution, the name of the deceased was not uttered; if it was absolutely necessary to refer to him, a circumlocution was used.”
Among the traditional Suquamish Indians in the Northwest Coast culture area, the names of the dead are not mentioned for at least five years and the names of dead chiefs are not to be uttered for ten. When the town of Seattle, Washington was created, chief Sealth’s permission was obtained in exchange for an annual payment during his lifetime. The payment, a kind of royalty, was an acknowledgment of the pain which would be inflicted on Sealth after his death because a variation of his name—Seattle—would continue to be spoken.
Many of the American Indian cultures in California had prohibitions on speaking the names of the dead. In northeastern California, the Karok did not speak the names of the dead. In his report on the Karok in the Handbook of North American Indians, William Bright reports:
“Uttering the name of a dead person was a serious offense; whether done either as a deliberate insult or by accident, it had to be compensated by payments to the family. However, the name was no longer taboo when formally given to a new baby in the family.”
In a similar fashion the Costanoan people in the San Francisco and Monterey Bay area have a prohibition on speaking the name of a dead person until that name was given to someone else.
The Achumawi, whose aboriginal homeland was near Mount Shasta, prefer to forget the dead as soon as possible. In their chapter on the Achumawi in the Handbook of North American Indians, D.I. Olmsted and Omer Stewart report:
“The name of the dead one was taboo; his soul had gone to the western mountains and no one wanted to give it an excuse to return, since the soul does not want to travel alone and might return to get a traveling companion from among those dear to it.”
The aboriginal homeland of the Quinault is along the coast of Washington. In her chapter in the Handbook of North American Indians, Yvonne Hadja writes:
“The dead person’s name was tabooed for about a year. Survivors might change their names, particularly if the names resembled that of the deceased.”
Among the Spokan Indians in the Plateau area of Washington state, widows and widowers would not mention the deceased’s name during the one- to two-year mourning period. This was done to prevent the ghost from appearing in dreams. Among the Kalispel Indians of eastern Washington and northern Idaho, the name of the deceased was not mentioned for over a year.
With regard to the Sioux Indians of the Northern Plains, Charles Eastman, in Light on the Indian World: The Essential Writings of Charles Eastman (Ohiyesa), puts it this way:
“So much reverence was due the disembodied spirit, that it was not customary with us even to name the dead aloud.”
The Yahgan are the aboriginal people of Tierra del Fuego at the tip of South America. This has been described as one of the least hospitable places on the planet. Fearing the spirits of the recently deceased, the Yahgan would traditionally abandon a campsite where a death had occurred, and they would never speak the dead person’s name.
In many cases, there may be a correlation between a belief in ghosts and in ancestor worship or ancestor veneration. In some cultures, ancestors do not stop having an interest in the lives of their descendants simply because they die. In these cultures, deceased ancestors may be venerated or worshiped by providing them with ceremonial food and drink and by consulting them with regard to important family matters. In some of the cultures in which there is a form of ancestor worship, it is possible for some ancestors to remain in the land of the living as ghosts. These ghosts continue to have a concern for the welfare of their descendants.
Reporting on the people of Ulithi, a Pacific island, William Lessa, in his ethnography Ulithi: A Mirconesian Design for Living, writes:
“The ghosts of the dead do not lose interest in the living; in fact, they are an extension of society because of the interest they take in human activities.”
William Lessa also reports:
“A lineage ghost is one who has returned from the Sky World to possess a lineage mate. Of course, such a spirit is known by name and gains a certain amount of ritualistic attention and respect.”
In some cultures, there are special ceremonies which can be used to summon the ghosts. One example of this is found among the Lake Miwok Indians in California. In the four-day Dance of the Dead, specific dead people are summoned by the shamans and singers in the sweathouse. With regard to the response of the dead person’s relatives, Catherine Callaghan, in her chapter on the Lake Miwok in the Handbook of North American Indians, reports:
“They often became emotional and grabbed at the spirit but only touched air. The dead person walked around and then went behind the sweathouse and disappeared.”
In modern European cultures, such as that of the United States, there is a common folk belief that some people have a spiritual gift which allows them to see and talk with ghosts. Some of these shamans, more commonly known as mediums, hold special ceremonies (seances) in which they call forth the ghosts of the ancestors. The ghosts, which are usually visible only to the medium, make their presence known to the others in the séance by making noises and moving objects.
In English-speaking countries, the religious movement known as Spiritualism flourished from the 1840s through the 1920s and still continues today. In their entry in The New Encyclopedia of Unbelief, Alison Lewis and Robert Helms write:
“Briefly defined, Spiritualism is the belief that living persons can have contact with the dead or other beings in a spiritual realm. While elements of spiritualism have existed in many times, places, and cultures, Spiritualism as a philosophy had its heyday in nineteenth-century America and Europe.”
Believing that the dead have special knowledge, spiritualists, such as Kate and Margaret Fox, would summon ghosts in special seances. Most of these spiritualists, however, were eventually discovered to be hoaxes.
Science, and particularly neuroscience, has another explanation as to why some people see ghosts: bereavement hallucinations, also known as grief hallucinations and post-bereavement hallucinations. In his book Atheism and the Case Against Christ, Matthew McCormick explains:
“When people undergo an emotionally traumatic event, it has dramatic effects on the brain. When people lose someone they love, it is quite common for them to have hallucinations of the person (or even a pet) shortly after the loss. The phenomenon is now well documented and is known as bereavement hallucination.”
Matthew McCormick also writes:
“It appears that the neurochemistry of grief is playing an active role on systems in the brain that contribute to visual and auditory representation.”
In one study of 363 widowed persons in Britain, it was found that nearly half reported one or more occasions in which the deceased person was seen, felt, or heard. Bereavement hallucinations tended to be less frequent among people under 40 years of age, people who were childless, and those who reported having an unhappy marriage.
Religion 101 is a series of essays exploring various topics relating to religion in which the concept of religion is not confined to the Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity, Islam) nor to the idea that religion must involve the worship of gods. More from this series:
Religion 201: Reincarnation
Religion 101: God-Given Morality
Religion 101: Theism, Pantheism, Panentheism
Religion 101: Hidden Blasphemy
Religion 201: Heresy
Religion 101: Some Norse Gods
Religion 101: Confucianism
Religion 101: Naturalism
Religion 101: The Evolution of Morality