CREEPY CORNER: Ghost Marriage

Going to the graveyard and we're, gonna get maaaaaaarried...
Publish date:
September 10, 2015
marriage, ghosts, creepy corner, funerals, wedding, patriarchy

"Mawage. Mawage is wot bwings us togeder tooday. Mawage, that bwessed awangment, that dweam wifin a dweam… And wuv, tru wuv, will fowow you foweva… So tweasure your wuv."

I've spent the better part of the day reading about ghost marriage and this is the quote that keeps running through my head. "Bwessed awangement...foweva..."

I'll admit I'm not a huge fan of The Princess Bride (uh oh, did I just lose half of the Creepy Corner readership?), but somehow The Impressive Clergyman's words seem to work in this context. Sort of. In a twisted kind of way.

Marriage in some form is common across almost every culture. For one reason or another (love, stability, power, status, companionship, goats...) most humans have the innate desire to find at least one other human to "tweasure" and live out their life with. Why should the dead be any different?

Enter ghost marriage.

Ghost marriage occurs all over the world, but the custom seems to be especially strong in Asian countries — though France, Sudan, and even the US also have versions of the practice.

But what is ghost marriage?

Well, it's basically exactly what it sounds like: the marriage of the spirits of two deceased persons (typically a man and a woman in Asian cultures) or, depending on the country, the marriage of a deceased individual to a spiritual stand-in (DOLLS, man).

In China, marriage is of enormous importance in the patrilineal society. The practice has all but died out (mostly) in China's major cities, but recent years have seen a rise in ghost marriages in more rural or traditional regions.

If a man goes to his grave unmarried, especially if he is the oldest son, his ghost may haunt his family. After all, marriage is the natural order of things, his right. If he dies without fulfilling his natural right, it is very unlucky for all involved (monetary misfortune, illness, mental anguish, etc.). Plus the dead bachelor might be lonely. So what is a dead guy to do?

Find a dead wife.

Or rather, have someone find you a dead wife.

If a dead man is lucky, there will be a recently deceased single woman who his family can marry him to. If there is nobody immediately available, a ghost matchmaker may get involved — and yes that's exactly what it sounds like.

In best case scenarios, the matchmaker knows of some recently dead women that are suitable for the recently dead man, and a marriage can be arranged. In worst case scenarios, the matchmaker is really a grave robber, and the body of a dead woman can be illegally exhumed and sold to the family of a dead man for thousands of dollars. THOUSANDS OF DOLLARS.

In some cases, a woman's body is exhumed and sold multiple times on the black market. The better looking and "fresher" the woman's corpse, the higher a price she fetches.

Though the ritual of ghost marriages was outlawed in 1949 in China, the practice never entirely died out. In fact, there has been a rise in recent years due to the influx of money in China.

As recent as 2013, four men in northwest China were arrested for selling the dead bodies of 10 women on the ghost marriage black market. The womens' bodies earned the grave robbers about $38,000 USD.

In 2014, 11 people were arrested for digging up and selling women's bodies in eastern China. One corpse was said to have "circulated" across several cities.

The primary suspect, a man by the name of Wang, told the media, "Years-old carcasses are not worth a damn, while the ones that have just died, like this one [the circulated corpse], are valuable...they could be sold for somewhere between 16,000 and 20,000 yuan." (Between approximately $2,500 and $3,100 USD)

At this point you might ask, "But what about women? Do they get ghost husbands? Or are they just a commodity to be dug up and sold to the highest bidder?"

Unfortunately in many traditional Chinese circles, a woman's worth is primarily dictated by her husband and his family. A single deceased woman without children has nobody to mourn or memorialize her. Her blood family, dictated by tradition, cannot place a memorial for her in their home. Only a married woman can be memorialized in her husband's home.

So in this respect, ghost marriage benefits a woman's memory.

"Lucky" the woman whose betrothed dies before their marriage. She can decide to marry her deceased husband, thus allowing her to remain married to him for the rest of her life — basically spiritually married and physically single. The wife would live with her husband's family.

In some cases, if she decides she wants children, a brother or relative of her ghost husband can stand in for him. Otherwise, the woman remains celibate. It has been noted, that some women take advantage of this "loophole" as a way to stay essentially single while gaining some status and security.

Of course, there are certainly more than a few cases where a Chinese ghost marriage is less about patrilineal rights or monetary gain, and more about companionship in the afterlife.

Anthropologist Diana Martin wrote about the Hong Kong ghost marriages she learned about in the 1970s. In one such case, a mother tells of her deceased son coming to her in a dream to express a desire for a wife.

The son had died "some time ago" and told his mother that he had "grown up" in the afterlife, and now wanted a family. A friend of the mother's had a daughter who had died 32 years prior at the age of 14 — she too would be "grown up."

Upon learning of her friend's son's visitation, the mother of the ghost girl — now ghost woman — suggested that the two deceased children might be a good match.

After consulting a medium, who told the mothers that their ghost children agreed to the marriage, an auspicious day was chosen and a wedding was held. Such a ghost marriage was for the benefit and comfort of both ghost man and ghost woman.

But what does one do at a ghost wedding? Pretty much the same thing one does at a living wedding.

A feast is held to honor the bride and groom. In the past the feast might be quite elaborate and grand, but in more modern times ghost wedding feasts are a bit more conservative. Nonetheless, special food and drink are served, and the families exchange gifts.

And the ceremony?

Usually one of the deceased has to be dug up and reburied next to their betrothed. Typically the woman is exhumed and moved. Once both bodies are in place, a marriage is performed at the gravesite.

The bride and groom are physically represented by ancestral tablets with their names inscribed on them. Martin writes that in the ceremony for the ghost son and ghost daughter, both tablets were walked to the family's ancestral altar (I assume the son's) and the tablets "bowed" to the altar. The tablets were then placed on the altar "and worshipped on festival days along with all the other ancestors."

But Louise, didn't you say something about dolls?

I sure did. Since ghost marriage is technically illegal in China, some law abiding families of dead bachelors will make their sons a "flour bride."

Yep, that's a wife made of wheat flour (bad news for Celiacs like me) molded into the form of a wife. Flour brides are adorned and wedding makeup is applied.

In Japan, man-doll marriage replaced man-ghost marriage in the 1930s.

Ellen Schattschneider writes that in order to thwart a dead man's "resentment toward the living" over being "denied the sexual and emotional fulfillment of marriage and procreation," and thus tormenting "their more fortunate living relatives," the man is married to a bride doll.

The doll is placed under a glass case along with a picture of her ghost husband, and the two stay there for 30 years. After 30 years, the ghost husband can pass on.

It should be noted that dead Japanese women can also take a doll husband. However, it seems to be less common.

And there you go, Creepy Corneristas, ghost marriage. If the whole marrying thing wasn't your bag in this life, maybe the afterlife will be the right time for your "bwessed awangment."

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