In religion the negative program of ghost placation long preceded the positive program of spirit coercion and supplication. The first acts of human worship were phenomena of defense, not reverence. Modern man deems it wise to insure against fire; so the savage thought it the better part of wisdom to provide insurance against ghost bad luck. The effort to secure this protection constituted the techniques and rituals of the ghost cult.
It was once thought that the great desire of a ghost was to be quickly “laid” so that it might proceed undisturbed to deadland. Any error of commission or omission in the acts of the living in the ritual of laying the ghost was sure to delay its progress to ghostland. This was believed to be displeasing to the ghost, and an angered ghost was supposed to be a source of calamity, misfortune, and unhappiness.
The funeral service originated in man’s effort to induce the ghost soul to depart for its future home, and the funeral sermon was originally designed to instruct the new ghost how to get there. It was the custom to provide food and clothes for the ghost’s journey, these articles being placed in or near the grave. The savage believed that it required from three days to a year to “lay the ghost”—to get it away from the vicinity of the grave. The Eskimos still believe that the soul stays with the body three days.
Silence or mourning was observed after a death so that the ghost would not be attracted back home. Self-torture—wounds—was a common form of mourning. Many advanced teachers tried to stop this, but they failed. Fasting and other forms of self-denial were thought to be pleasing to the ghosts, who took pleasure in the discomfort of the living during the transition period of lurking about before their actual departure for deadland.
Long and frequent periods of mourning inactivity were one of the great obstacles to civilization’s advancement. Weeks and even months of each year were literally wasted in this nonproductive and useless mourning. The fact that professional mourners were hired for funeral occasions indicates that mourning was a ritual, not an evidence of sorrow. Moderns may mourn the dead out of respect and because of bereavement, but the ancients did this because of fear.
The names of the dead were never spoken. In fact, they were often banished from the language. These names became taboo, and in this way the languages were constantly impoverished. This eventually produced a multiplication of symbolic speech and figurative expression, such as “the name or day one never mentions.”
The ancients were so anxious to get rid of a ghost that they offered it everything which might have been desired during life. Ghosts wanted wives and servants; a well-to-do savage expected that at least one slave wife would be buried alive at his death. It later became the custom for a widow to commit suicide on her husband’s grave. When a child died, the mother, aunt, or grandmother was often strangled in order that an adult ghost might accompany and care for the child ghost. And those who thus gave up their lives usually did so willingly; indeed, had they lived in violation of custom, their fear of ghost wrath would have denuded life of such few pleasures as the primitives enjoyed.
It was customary to dispatch a large number of subjects to accompany a dead chief; slaves were killed when their master died that they might serve him in ghostland. The Borneans still provide a courier companion; a slave is speared to death to make the ghost journey with his deceased master. Ghosts of murdered persons were believed to be delighted to have the ghosts of their murderers as slaves; this notion motivated men to head hunting.
Ghosts supposedly enjoyed the smell of food; food offerings at funeral feasts were once universal. The primitive method of saying grace was, before eating, to throw a bit of food into the fire for the purpose of appeasing the spirits, while mumbling a magic formula.
The dead were supposed to use the ghosts of the tools and weapons that were theirs in life. To break an article was to “kill it,” thus releasing its ghost to pass on for service in ghostland. Property sacrifices were also made by burning or burying. Ancient funeral wastes were enormous. Later races made paper models and substituted drawings for real objects and persons in these death sacrifices. It was a great advance in civilization when the inheritance of kin replaced the burning and burying of property. The Iroquois Indians made many reforms in funeral waste. And this conservation of property enabled them to become the most powerful of the northern red men. Modern man is not supposed to fear ghosts, but custom is strong, and much terrestrial wealth is still consumed on funeral rituals and death ceremonies.