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A man marrying a deceased woman in China

Ghost Marriages: Love For the Living and the Deceased

The tradition of the ghost marriage is one that supposedly stretches back to the first imperial dynasty of China: the Qin Dynasty, dating from the years 221 BC – 206 BC. The most comprehensive early records of the practice, however, appear to come from the following dynasty: the Han (206 BC -220 AD). The purpose of the tradition is to ensure that if a man or woman dies young and unmarried, they should still travel to the afterlife with a spouse, thus protecting both the name of their living family and guaranteeing company for the deceased in next world.

A Ghost Marriage: Keeps the Phantom Happy and the Living with Luck

The most common form of ghost marriage was to wed a dead man to a dead woman, whether or not they had been previously engaged. The ritual, however, went beyond just ensuring a partner for the deceased men and women. According to legend, if someone passed away and was not given a proper ghost wedding, he or she would haunt the family home until such an arrangement was made.

Zhong Kui, the being that banished ghosts and evil entities in ancient China

Zhong Kui, the being that banished ghosts and evil entities in ancient China ( Wikimedia Commons )

In haunting the family, the younger generations were at risk for a downfall in their family name and fortune. Thus, the wedding was not merely for the assurance of the dead, but equally important—sometimes more so—for the sake of the remaining living family members.

Ghost Marriages For the Living: Male Preference in Life and Death

Yet a marriage between two deceased people was not the only type of ghost marriage.  Interestingly, both participants did not actually have to be deceased. It was also traditional that if the male spouse died young, his fiancée could decide to go through with the wedding anyway with another person standing in for him during the ceremony. Though the man was deceased, the woman would be given a home and protection by his extended family, and thus the woman would not be at risk for never marrying—something highly looked down upon in ancient Chinese culture.

A young woman requesting money to have a ghost marriage with her boyfriend who died in a 2008 earthquake, Chongqing, China

A young woman requesting money to have a ghost marriage with her boyfriend who died in a 2008 earthquake, Chongqing, China ( TheShrineoDreams)

However, if a woman were to die young and unwed, she could not be given a proper funeral or spirit tablet, as that was the responsibility of the husband's family and never of her birth family. A living man could also go through the same ghost marriage if his bride prematurely died, yet his marital status had no importance on whether he could be properly buried upon his own early demise. There is much less evidence of ghost marriages occurring between a living man and his dead bride, as protection in death as well as a wider range of freedoms in life existed for a man, regardless if he were single or married.

Posthumous Marriage in France

China was (and is not) the only culture to have practiced this tradition of ghost marriage.  In World War I, a similar practice was adopted in France, as women who had lost their fiancés to the war still wished to marry them, and thus did so by proxy. It continued forty years later and came to be known as "posthumous marriage" after a tragic dam break resulted in a woman begging to gain permission to wed the fiancé who had died in the accident. Since then, the practice has become protected under French marriage laws and can still be granted for a variation of reasons.

Ghost Marriages and Future Children: The Nuer Tribe

Other cultures are also known to have later adopted the custom, most notably some tribes from the country of Sudan. In the Nuer tribe, it was commonly the brother of the groom who replaced the dead fiancé in the wedding ceremony as a stand-in, though the brother would have to engage with "his brother's wife" as her true husband. Therefore, if any children were to come from the union of the brother of the dead groom and the wife, those children would be considered the offspring of the dead man and not those of the living brother.

Traditional Nuer wedding dance ( Wikifoundry)

Marriage At Times With Devotion and Sometimes Without Consent

Although the concept of ghost marriage seems like a strange tradition to those who first hear about its practice, it is seemingly much more common that one would think. It represents a level of devotion to the deceased partner of the living spouse in the present day, somewhat overshadowing its initial intention of protection in ancient China.

The transformation of the practice has evolved with time outside of China, despite that it still remains in its traditional form (sometimes illegally) within the rural regions of China itself. Recently, there has even been documented cases of deceased women (in particular) dug up from their graves and sold to be ghost brides in a form of illegal trade. Firstpost reported , for example, that Shanxi's Hongtong County had at least three dozen thefts of female corpses from 2013-2016. It is believed the bodies were taken as brides for deceased men. They explain the modern procedure for the ghost wedding, writing, “In ghost marriage rituals, female skeletons are reinforced with steel wires and clothed before they are buried alongside dead bachelors as "ghost brides."”

Although the government essentially banned the practice in 1949, rural Chinese people, especially those living in Shanxi, Henan, and Shaanxi provinces, continued the ritual. For a time, it was more common for the body of a corpse bride to be replaced with a picture or dummy made with paper or dough. But beliefs that the representational dough brides would not be enough to ward off bad luck means that people are still stealing of female corpses and selling them to the families of deceased men, often for high prices. For example, one family paid 180,000 yuan (USD 27,000) for a corpse bride for their dead bachelor son. There are even matchmaking companies set up for families to pair dead bachelors with a woman’s corpse.

Featured Image: A man marrying a deceased woman in China ( nirbhayam.com)

By Ryan Stone

References

Gray, J.H. China: A History of the Laws, Manners, and Customs of the People (Macmillian: London, 1878.)

Martin, Diana. "Chinese Ghost Marriage." Accessed August 16, 2015. https://www.anthro.ox.ac.uk/fileadmin/ISCA/JASO/Occasional%20Paper%208%20-%201991%20part2.pdf

O'Neil, Dennis. "Marriage Rules: Part II." June 29, 2006. Accessed August 5, 2015. http://anthro.palomar.edu/marriage/marriage_4.htm

Topley, Marjorie and Jean DeBernadi. Cantonese Society in Hong Kong and Singapore: Gender, Religion, Medicine and Money (Hong Kong University: Hong Kong, 2011.)

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