Grateful dead (or grateful ghost) is a folktale present in many cultures throughout the world. The most common story involves a traveler who encounters a corpse of someone who never received a proper burial, typically stemming from an unpaid debt. The grateful dead spirit may take many different physical forms including that of a guardian angel, animal or fellow traveler. The traveler’s encounter with the deceased comes near the end of the traveler’s journey. The traveler then either pays off the dead person’s debt or pays for burial. The traveler is later rewarded or has their life saved by a person or animal who is actually the soul of the dead person; the grateful dead is a form of the donor.
In many cultures there is the belief that when a person dies their soul is separated from their body thus giving someone a proper burial allows their spirit to carry on into the next life.
The “grateful dead” story is Aarne–Thompson–Uther type 505.
An ancient Egyptian text explains the principle of reciprocity in which the deceased calls for a blessing on the person who remembers his name and helps him into a happy afterlife:
But if there be a man, any one whomsoever, who beholdeth this writing and causeth my soul and my name to become established among those who are blessed, let it be done for him likewise after his final arriving (at the end of life’s voyage) in recompense for what was done by him for me, Osiris.
One variant is the Book of Tobit. The chivalric romance Amadas has the title knight pay his last coins for such a burial. Due to his chivalry the deceased is resurrected and aids the hero in recovering the riches that was used to provide him with a proper burial. The Grateful dead motif appears in various fairy tales, such as the Italian Fair Brow, the Swedish The Bird ‘Grip’ and H. C. Andersen’s The Traveling Companion.