I haven't seen the remake yet, but the original version, as funny as it was, reminded us that the spirit world is real and can impact the living in a variety of ways. In fact, the sheer volume of old traditional practices and beliefs surrounding the spirits of the dead from so many cultures lend credence to the fact that when people breathe their last, only the body dies. The person’s soul, thoughts, fears, loves and hates somehow live on somehow in the emotional and mental state that the person was in when he or she shuffled off their mortal coil.
If the deceased was a friendly, kindly person and well disposed towards those that remain, he or she might appear to them as a comforting or reassuring presence, eager to provide messages of love beyond the veil of death. But if not, as was too often the case, the deceased person could very possibly vent their undying rage or hatred against the living and cause all sorts of trouble. If a loving ghost can manifest a comforting presence, what might a ghost with an axe to grind be able to do? Stories abound of ghosts, angry at the disposition of a will or the remarriage of a widowed spouse, producing phenomena that could bring actual physical harm, and occasionally death from beyond the grave.
Hence, most of the customs that purport to placate the dead and lay them to rest are primarily directed at those who were nasty and vindictive in life and would presumably remain so after death. The fact that these customs are still practiced by people who should ‘know better’ would indicate that there was a continued need for them. They presumably know full well that there was nothing inherent in the process of death that is likely to change the character of an unpleasant and unkind family member and that they have to take steps to deal with the ‘unquiet spirit’ so that it wouldn’t cause a ruckus long after the body was buried securely in the ground.
Over time, there arose an unofficial profession of people whose job it was to take up where the undertaker left off and deal with the spirits of the dead after the bodies were disposed of. These people, both tribal shamans and Christian clergy, developed a vast arsenal of rituals, prayers, charms and exorcisms that would reassure the living that their unpleasant loved one would be gathered up in the bosoms of their ancestors or into the care of Christ or angels and trouble them no more.
But as the scientific era progressed, clergy and their scientific counterparts, psychiatrists and counselors, became less concerned with keeping the old customs and more concerned with educating people out of them. It might be true that what was tormenting a grief-stricken family member was not a vengeful spirit but a bad case of guilt or remorse. But in the rare instance where ‘rational’ reasons for the manifestations of a haunting were ruled out, being told it was ‘all in your head’ was scant comfort to someone who was experiencing noisy and terrifying manifestations from an angry deceased relative.
So it fell to others to do what was considered necessary to keep the ghosts of the dead who possibly had died in no good of a humor, from causing problems. So, ghost busters of various kinds not only did what was needed to exorcise or banish the vengeful spirit, but also to discreetly determine what phenomena were the result of said spirit and what were not and placate the loved ones that remained as well as the departed ones.
According to many traditions, death didn’t happen instantly with the final breath and the cessation of the heartbeat. It took a while – usually three days -- for the spirit of the person to disentangle itself from the dying flesh. So burial did not take place for three days after death occurred and many of the customs that prevailed between death and burial were designed to facilitate the dying process and ease the distress (or placate the anger) of the person going through it. Candles would be lit and flowers placed on the casket, prayers would be said and relatives would take turns sitting next to the casket so that the person would never be left alone until the process of dying was complete.
One custom is the practice of covering all the mirrors in a house with cloth, at least during the time that the deceased was lying in state in the parlor before burial. Mirrors were considered to be gateways to the next world and the newly dead spirit might be drawn into realms where they really shouldn’t go. Other spirits who might be attracted to the strong emotions attendant upon a death in the family might wish to invade through the open doorway, usually with no good purpose in mind.
Another custom is that of putting coins such as pennies either in the mouth or on the eyes of the deceased person's body. This was a Roman custom and persisted throughout the Romanized world. It facilitated the passage of the dead person into the next world by paying the ferryman to row the person over the river that separates the living from the dead. It is still discreetly practiced today in defiance of both church and science, at least in places where bodies were more under the control of the family rather than the mortician.
Even when laid to rest properly, ghosts might still walk if they have a good reason to do so. The ghosts that really appear to us can do so without the need of a medium and will find a way to tell us what they need to tell us. Most ghostly visitations occur in dreams, or in that strange not quite sleep, not quite awake state that we often have in the early morning before we wake up completely.
Often the encounter seems so real that we resist being told that it wasn’t. To us, it was real and if the visitation comforts us, reassures us and allows us to put fear or grief behind us and carry on, then the visit has served its purpose and our ghostly visitor has achieved his or her goal.
And, to a ghost, that’s really all that matters.