Ghost Marriages: Where the Living Wed the Dead

Ghost marriage: spirit weddings and posthumous marriages (Image: pamula133; ghost marriage)

Born of heartbreak, sadness and, at times, concern for a relative’s place in the afterlife, the tradition of the ghost marriage dates back thousands of years, and it’s still happening in the 21st century.

Ghost marriages have been around so long that there are no reliable records on how they began, and such weddings can take a number of different forms. China is the most common country in the world for ghost marriages, but they’re also practised throughout Africa and even Europe; France introduced a form of legal ‘posthumous marriage’ in 1959.

Typically, ghost marriages are arranged between either a living person and a recently deceased one, or between two recently deceased and unmarried individuals. Such weddings arose in part because of a fear that, according to certain traditions, those who die unmarried will find themselves alone in the afterlife.

Ceremonies are also carried out if one partner dies before a couple can be married, or to ensure that the oldest son in a family is married first. Traditionally, unmarried daughters were an embarrassment and a burden on Chinese families, and ghost weddings provided another way of marrying them off into another family. Alternatively, an unmarried woman may be brought into a family through a spirit marriage, simply to serve as a care giver for other family members.

Ghost marriages have led fuelled grave robbers in China (Image: steinchen; ghost marriages have led fuelled grave robbers in China)

Those wishing to pursue a ghost marriage may claim to have been contacted by the spirit of their deceased husband or bride to be, and then seek the help of a matchmaker. Unfortunately, this is where trouble may lie, even today. In August 2016 the BBC reported that a man in China, where the shadowy ritual is still practised in certain areas, had been charged with the murder of two women whose corpses, it was alleged, he planned use in ghost weddings.

According to the broadcaster, the shadowy ritual’s ongoing practice in certain parts of rural China had fuelled a spate of grave robberies to meet the black market demand for dead bodies. Huang Jingchun, head of the Chinese department at Shanghai University, told the BBC that the price of a young woman’s corpse had risen since 2008, due in part to superstitious families driven by a fear that bad luck would follow them if their loved one’s wishes were not respected. Some, it seems, are willing to pay a hefty price to do just that.

Related: Mourning Rituals & Etiquette: The Victorians’ Morbid Obsession with Death

 

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