Grateful Dead

The Grateful Dead is a motif in folklore in which ghosts of the dead return to the world of the living to bestow rewards upon deserving people. For example, a hero comes upon a group of people who refuse to bury a corpse because there is no money to pay the costs. The hero pays for the burial and continues on. He is then joined by a mysterious traveller who gives him astonishing aid, such as saving his life in great peril, finding a princess for him to marry, slaying monsters, or finding great treasure.

Sometimes the companion demands half the spoils, which he relinquishes at the very end, just before he reveals himself to be the ghost of the corpse. In Chinese folklore, the grateful dead often act as agents of social control. The purpose of their appearance is to copiously reward those who gave their corpses proper burial and their spirits continuing respect (thus ensuring the continuation of Ancestor Worship).

They also honour brave persons, and grace deserving relatives with drop-in visits.


  • Emmons, Charles F. Chinese Ghosts and ESP. Metuchen, N.J.: The Scarecrow Press, 1982.
  • Leach, Maria, and Jerome Fried, eds. Funk & Wagnalls Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology, and Legend. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1979.


The Encyclopedia of Ghosts and Spirits– Written by Rosemary Ellen Guiley – September 1, 2007