Authored by: Owen Davies

The Routledge Companion to Death and Dying

Print publication date:  May  2017
Online publication date:  May  2017

Print ISBN: 9781138852075
eBook ISBN: 9781315723747
Adobe ISBN:


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The oft-asked question “What is a ghost?” is not easy to answer. Different definitions and notions circulated at different periods of history and continue to do so in different cultures today. Different religions need to be considered, as well as various scientific and pseudo-scientific explanations. Then there is the issue of individual conceptions and ideas based on personal experience. There are some constants in history, the most fundamental being the idea that ghosts are the spirits of dead people returned to the land of the living. Depending on different cultural contexts, ghosts are feared, worshipped, propitiated, or avoided. They can be comforting, scary, aggressive, passive, or puzzling, and reveal themselves as a noise, a smell, through touch, as well as visions. Some ghosts are communicative, some silent, some purposeful, some purposeless. While sometimes dismissed as a rather frivolous subject for historians, anthropologists, and sociologists, ghosts reflect the cultures that produce them, thereby illuminating universal notions regarding the meaning of life and life after death, and culturally specific issues concerning grief, funerary practices, and religious belief.

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