Death was feared because death meant the liberation of another ghost from its physical body. The ancients did their best to prevent death, to avoid the trouble of having to contend with a new ghost. They were always anxious to induce the ghost to leave the scene of death, to embark on the journey to deadland. The ghost was feared most of all during the supposed transition period between its emergence at the time of death and its later departure for the ghost homeland, a vague and primitive concept of pseudo heaven.
Though the savage credited ghosts with supernatural powers, he hardly conceived of them as having supernatural intelligence. Many tricks and stratagems were practiced in an effort to hoodwink and deceive the ghosts; civilized man still pins much faith on the hope that an outward manifestation of piety will in some manner deceive even an omniscient Deity.
The primitives feared sickness because they observed it was often a harbinger of death. If the tribal medicine man failed to cure an afflicted individual, the sick man was usually removed from the family hut, being taken to a smaller one or left in the open air to die alone. A house in which death had occurred was usually destroyed; if not, it was always avoided, and this fear prevented early man from building substantial dwellings. It also militated against the establishment of permanent villages and cities.
The savages sat up all night and talked when a member of the clan died; they feared they too would die if they fell asleep in the vicinity of a corpse. Contagion from the corpse substantiated the fear of the dead, and all peoples, at one time or another, have employed elaborate purification ceremonies designed to cleanse an individual after contact with the dead. The ancients believed that light must be provided for a corpse; a dead body was never permitted to remain in the dark. In the twentieth century, candles are still burned in death chambers, and men still sit up with the dead. So-called civilized man has hardly yet completely eliminated the fear of dead bodies from his philosophy of life.
But despite all this fear, men still sought to trick the ghost. If the death hut was not destroyed, the corpse was removed through a hole in the wall, never by way of the door. These measures were taken to confuse the ghost, to prevent its tarrying, and to insure against its return. Mourners also returned from a funeral by a different road, lest the ghost follow. Backtracking and scores of other tactics were practiced to insure that the ghost would not return from the grave. The sexes often exchanged clothes in order to deceive the ghost. Mourning costumes were designed to disguise survivors; later on, to show respect for the dead and thus appease the ghosts.