In Chinese tradition, a ghost marriage (Chinese: 冥婚; pinyin: mínghūn; literally: “spirit marriage”) is a marriage in which one or both parties are deceased. Other forms of ghost marriage are practiced worldwide, from Sudan, to India, to France since 1959. The origins of Chinese ghost marriage are largely unknown, though reports of it being practiced in the present day have become more frequent. Whilst Sudanese and French ‘posthumous’ marriage largely revolves around a bereaved widow marrying one of the groom’s brothers or a partner killed in war, the Chinese variant regularly sees the joining in matrimony of a living person and a corpse.
Chinese ghost marriage was usually set up by the family of the deceased and performed for a number of reasons, including the marriage of an engaged couple before one member’s death, to integrate an unmarried daughter into a patrilineage, to ensure the family line is continued, or to maintain that no younger brother is married before an elder brother. Upon the death of her fiancé, a bride could choose to go through with the wedding, in which the groom was represented by a white cockerel at the ceremony. However, some women were hesitant since this form of ghost marriage required her to participate in the funeral ritual, mourning customs (including strict dress and conduct standards), take a vow of celibacy, and immediately take up residence with his family. A groom had the option of marrying his late fiancée, with no disadvantages, but there have been no records of such weddings.
Chinese tradition looked very unfavourably on unmarried women, in part due to the deceased woman leaving no surviving male descendants who could pay tribute to her memory, whilst also causing a burden to her family, resulting her being no longer welcome in the family home. For a son to find himself unmarried and hence being unable to carry on the family name, a similar rejection takes place, both genders sometimes resorting to ‘ghost marriage’, very occasionally a living bride taking a dead groom, more often a woman disinterred to be with her new living spouse. The cadaver is not always required, the ceremony, performed by a psychic or a priest, sometimes transferring the spirit from the grave.
Ghost marriages are often set up by request of the spirit of the deceased, who, upon “finding itself without a spouse in the other world, causes misfortune for its natal family, the family of its betrothed, or for the family of the deceased’s married sisters. This usually takes the form of sickness by one or more family members. When the sickness is not cured by ordinary means, the family turns to divination and learns of the plight of the ghost through a séance. More benignly, a spirit may appear to a family member in a dream and request a spouse.
If a family wishes to arrange a ghost marriage, they may consult with a matchmaker of sorts: In a Cantonese area of Singapore there is in fact a ghost marriage broker’s sign hung up in a doorway of a Taoist priest’s home. The broker announces that he is willing to undertake the search for a family which has a suitable deceased member with a favourable horoscope.”
Others do not use the aid of any priest or diviner and believe that the groom the ghost-bride has chosen “[will] somehow identify himself.” Typically, the family lays a red envelope (usually used for gifts of money) as bait in the middle of the road. They then take to hiding, and when the envelope is picked up by a passer-by, they come out and announce his status of being the chosen bridegroom. In a ghost marriage, many of the typical marriage rites are observed. However, since one or more parties is deceased, they are otherwise represented, most often by effigies made of paper, bamboo or cloth.
For instance, a ghost couple at their marriage feast, the bride and groom may be constructed of paper bodies over a bamboo frame with a papier-mâché head. On either side of them stands their respective paper servants, and the room contains many other paper effigies of products they would use in their home, such as a dressing table (complete with a mirror), a table and six stools, a money safe, a refrigerator, and trunks of paper clothes and cloth. After the marriage ceremony is complete, all of the paper belongings are burned to be sent to the spirit world to be used by the couple.
In another ceremony that married a living groom to a ghost bride, the effigy was similar, but instead constructed with a wooden backbone, arms made from newspaper, and the head of “a smiling young girl clipped from a wall calendar.” Similarly, after the marriage festivities, the dummy is burned.
In both cases, the effigies wore real clothing, similar to that which is typically used in marriage ceremonies. This includes a pair of trousers, a white skirt, a red dress, with a lace outer dress. Additionally, they were adorned with jewellery; though similar in fashion to that of a typical bride’s, it was not made of real gold. If a living groom is marrying a ghost bride, he will wear black gloves instead of the typical white.
Most of the marriage ceremony and rites are performed true to Chinese custom. In fact, the bride was always treated as though she was alive and participating in the proceedings, from being fed at the wedding feast in the morning, to being invited in and out of the cab, to being told of her arrival at the groom’s house. One observable difference in a ghost marriage is that the ancestral tablet of the deceased is placed inside the effigy, so that “the bride’s dummy [is] animated with the ghost that [is] to be married”, and then placed with the groom’s family’s tablets at the end of the marriage festivities.
The primary reason for the posthumous marriage in France is to allow for bereaved widows to marry their lost partners, usually as a result of death during war. It is also used to legitimize children that a woman might have, though it is also done for emotional reasons. After a posthumous marriage the living spouse inherently becomes a widow or widower. Posthumous marriage will also bring the surviving spouse into the family of the deceased spouse, which can create an alliance or moral satisfaction. The surviving spouse is also subject to impediments of marriage that result. Posthumous marriage also shows the strength of an individual to overcome a fiancé’s death.
The proliferation of post-life weddings prompted the French government to clarify the law in 1950. The resultant law decreed that marriage between a living person and a dead person was legal but required the approval of both the country’s President and Justice Minister. Wedding services which are allowed omit the line “til death do us part” and amend another line from “I do” to “I did”. The ‘missing’ partner is represented by a photograph at the ceremony. As recently as 2014, a posthumous wedding was granted to a woman whose husband-to-be had expired of a heart attack just one monthbefore their wedding was due to take place.
Europe and Beyond
Ghost marriages in the United States are very rare indeed, although examples do exist, where a planned wedding has had to be aborted due to an untimely death. These instances have gone ahead on a locally authorised basis rather than a national decree. A law unto themselves are the members of The Church of the Latter Day Saints (Mormons), who often refer to marriage as ‘sealings’ and do not differentiate between the joining of a couple before or after death. Their justification rests in an interpreted passage in the bible in which in Matthew 16:19:
“And I will give thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”
Such wild imaginings also allow members of the church to partake in the somehow even more ghoulish practice of ‘dead baptisms’.
In Sudan, a ghost marriage is a marriage where a deceased groom is replaced by his brother. The brother serves as a stand in to the bride, and any resulting children are considered children of the deceased spouse. This unusual type of marriage is nearly exclusive to the Dinka (Jieng) and Nuer tribes of Southern Sudan, although instances of such marriages have also occurred in France.
Nuer women do not marry deceased men only to continue the man’s bloodline. In accordance to Nuer tradition, any wealth owned by the woman becomes property of the man after the marriage. Thus, a wealthy woman may marry a deceased man to retain her wealth, instead of giving it up after marrying. Among the Nuer, a ghost marriage is nearly as common as a marriage to a live man.
The Sudanese tradition is related to ‘levirate marriage’ [derived from the Latin, ‘levir’, meaning ‘husband’s brother’]. Levirate marriages have been performed around the world and by many cultures, from Africa to Europe to throughout Asia, famous examples even taking place in England, such as Catherine of Aragon’s marriage to Henry VIII, brother to her previous husband, Arthur, Prince of Wales.
A turn in the economy of China has resulted in a black market trade evolving since the turn of the millennium, the trafficking of corpses for needy lonely hearts becoming a booming business. Although outlawed in the country since 1949, groups have taken to digging up corpses for the purpose of ghost marriage, selling the cadavers to desperate families for up to £3700 each. In 2014, 4 men were jailed for attempting to sell 10 corpses for the princely combined sum of £25,000. Less wealthy ‘customers’ often make do with statuettes or even baked effigies with black beans for eyes.
Daz Lawrence, Horrorpedia