The grateful dead ballad or folktale concerns a hero who comes upon a corpse being refused a proper burial because it owes a debt. The hero resolves the debt and thus the corpse’s destiny without expectation of reward, often with his last penny.
Soon he meets a traveling companion who aids him in some impossible task, who, of course, turns out to be the spirit of the corpse he aided. This motif is found in almost every culture since the ancient Egyptians.
Unknowingly, the Warlocks had plunked themselves into a universal cultural thread woven into the matrix of all human experience. The term “grateful dead” is about karma, and asserts that acting from soul and the heart guarantees that righteousness will result. It is about honor, compassion, and keeping promises. It precedes and suggests “Cast thy bread upon the waters,” and “No man is an island,” and “What goes around comes around.”
The very fact of a good-time rock band selecting a name that involved death created a gap that automatically separated the sheep from the goats. You had to be at least a little bent just to appreciate it. It confused some and appalled others—and what could be better for a rock band? It implied layers and layers of depth, unique among all rock band names in that era, and suggested that something very powerful indeed happened on High Street that day.
In the end, they did not choose their name. It chose them.
A Long Strange Trip: The Inside History of the Grateful Dead by Dennis Mcnally