An ancient and obscure marriage ritual has put the authorities on alert in some parts of China It is the so-called ghost wedding, a ceremony that seeks to provide a spouse to the person who dies unmarried. But in recent times, several murders have taken place for carrying out this ritual.
Ghost weddings – Ancient and obscure marriage rituals
In April, police in Shaanxi province arrested three men after the body of a woman was found in their vehicle. While police in northwest China accused another man of murdering two mentally disabled women, alleging that he wanted to sell their corpses to be used in “ghost weddings”.
The investigation revealed a macabre sequence of events in which a man, identified only as Ma, allegedly promised the women he would find them grooms, but killed them so he could sell their corpses.
What is a ghost wedding?
The believers of this custom, practiced for some 3,000 years, say it assures the unmarried dead that they will not be alone in the afterlife.
Originally, weddings were strictly for the dead – a ritual performed by the living to marry two deceased people – but in recent times the idea of a living person marrying a corpse was introduced.
In ghost marriages between two dead people, the bride’s family demands a bride price and there is even a dowry, with jewelry, servants, and a mansion, but all represented with paper figures.
Factors such as age and family background are just as important as in more traditional weddings, so families hire Feng Shui masters to officiate the ceremony.
A wedding usually consists of the placement of a burial plaque of the bride and groom and a banquet. The most important part is digging up the bride’s bones and placing them inside the groom’s grave.
Does a darker side to this tradition exist?
But there is evidence that this ritual has mutated in certain parts of China.
There were cases where a living person was “married” to a corpse in a secret ritual, but more alarming are the grave robberies and even the murder of people to carry them out.
In 2015, 14 women’s bodies were reportedly stolen in a village in Shanxi province. Villagers said the grave robbers stole the bodies to make money.
According to Huang Jingchun, head of the Chinese department at Shanghai University, who conducted a study on ghost weddings in Shanxi between 2008 and 2010, the price of a corpse or the bones of a young woman rose sharply.
At the time of his research, such remains were selling for around 30,000 to 50,000 yuan (US$4,500 to US$7,500). It is estimated that the price these days could be as high as 100,000 yuan (US$15,000).
The sale of corpses was banned in 2006, but grave robbing has not stopped. A man was arrested in Inner Mongolia’s Liangcheng County last year and told police he murdered a woman to sell her body to a family looking for a ghost bride.
What’s the reason for this?
The reasons vary from place to place.
In some districts of China, such as Shanxi, where the latest murders occurred, there are large numbers of young, unmarried men working in coal mining, where death rates are high.
The ghost wedding serves as a form of compensation. Looking for a dead bride is something they can do for a son who died young while working to support the family.
However, the sex ratio is also significant. The 2014 census results show that nearly 116 boys were born for every 100 girls. But Huang believes there are also more fundamental cultural reasons.
Many Chinese believe that misfortune will befall them if the wishes of the dead were not fulfilled. And performing a ghost wedding is one way to appease the dead.
“The basic ideology behind ghost weddings is that the deceased continue their life in the afterlife,” Huang said. “So if someone didn’t get married when they were alive, they need to be married after their death.”
Is this happening elsewhere?
Most cases are found in northern and central China, such as the provinces of Shanxi, neighboring Shaanxi, and Henan. But Szeto Fat-ching, a feng shui master in Hong Kong, also confirms the existence of this ancient custom among Chinese communities in Southeast Asia.
In Taiwan, if an unmarried woman passes away, her family may place red-colored packages containing cash, a lock of hair, or a fingernail out in the open and wait for a man to pick them up.
The first man to take the bundles is chosen as the groom and is believed to be bad luck if he refuses to marry the ghost bride.
Wedding rituals are similar, but unlike in mainland China, there are no bones dug up. The groom is often allowed to marry a living woman later, but his dead wife must be revered as the primary wife.
Last year, a video of a ghost wedding in Taichung, Taiwan, where a man apparently “married” his dead bride in an elaborate ceremony, went viral. At the heart of these rituals is the universal human dilemma of how to cope with loss.
“These kinds of ghost weddings are very emotional and show the perseverance of love,” Szeto revealed to the BBC.