The Long History Of Ghost Weddings In China, Explained

Often, through fairy tales and romantic comedies, marriage is looked at as something passionate, dream-like, and even quirky and comedic from time to time. As a result, millions of hopeful romantics spend their time chasing the fairy-tale ending in which they find their perfect match and live happily ever after. What happens, though, when the happily ever after, and the wedding itself, begins at the end?

For ghost weddings in China, this is precisely what happens. Well, almost exactly. Sometimes happily ever after is more of an arranged marriage. According to Sixth Tone, ghost weddings were initially meant as a replacement for human sacrifice that often took place in the Shang Dynasty when people were sacrificed to accompany the already deceased in the afterlife. Nevertheless, til death do us part doesn't apply when the marriage is taking place between two corpses. Or sometimes even between one living person and a deceased soon-to-be spouse. People in China have been practicing ghost marriages since 17th century B.C., according to The Guardian, and though not everyone is on board with this tradition, its caused quite a stir over the years.

Superstition and hauntings fuel the continuation of ghost weddings

Many people in Chinese culture believe that the deceased still have the same social expectations as the living, according to Sixth Tone. This includes the companionship of their spouse, but unfortunately, not everyone was able to marry before their death — especially those who died at a young age. Therefore, a ghost wedding is a way to ensure that the unmarried dead are not alone in the afterlife. 

Superstition plays a key role as well. Those who pass away before marriage often don't have any children to extend their lineage, and therefore, no one to honor their memory during Qingming Festival, also known as Tomb Sweeping Day. According to the Travel China Guide, once a year families of the deceased clear weeds around the tomb, add fresh soil and deliver their favorite foods and drinks to the grave as a sign of respect.

Having passed away without carrying on their family lineage, some believe the unwed dead would haunt their family by appearing in their mother's dreams or bringing bad luck into the household as a way to ask for a spouse. The marriages, mainly between two deceased individuals, follow specific rules. Usually, the groom's family offers a dowry of some sort and pays for the ceremony and the burial, as the corpses of the newlyweds are dug up for the occasion. In some cases, however, the spouse found for the deceased is still living, and the ghost wedding is carried out in secret per BBC.

The matchmaking process for finding the perfect ghostly pair can vary

Some insist on a ghost wedding for their deceased loved one because, in many families, siblings have to marry in order of seniority. If the deceased individual has younger siblings, the dead are preventing the living from peacefully getting married, according to Sixth Tone. For those with the means, it isn't uncommon for a matchmaker to be hired to find the perfect partner for the dead. If both the bride and groom are dead, the corpses are exhumed for the ceremony and often represented by various objects like a spirit tablet or even present in a closed coffin and the banquet following the wedding.

Though, in cases where the wedding is between a living person and a corpse, rules vary slightly. If a living woman marries a corpse, she is widowed as soon as she is married and will then live with the groom's family. In Taiwan, when a woman passes away who did not get a chance to marry, her family can take matters into their own hands by placing red packets with money and a lock of hair out in the open to lure in a groom. When a man picks up the packets, he must then marry the corpse bride or suffer bad luck, according to BBC. The groom will be allowed to marry a living woman later on, but his corpse bride is always known as the predominant wife.

Grave robbers see ghost weddings as a way to make a buck

Unfortunately, for many families searching for the perfect spouse to wed their deceased loved one, it isn't always easy to find another unmarried corpse or single and alive human willing to marry a ghost. Finding a corpse for ghost weddings developed into an underground crime ring, and in 2015 alone, it was reported that 14 female corpses were stolen in a Shanxi province village, according to BBC.

Huang Jingchun from Shanghai University did a field study on ghost weddings in Shanxi. He found that between 2008 and 2010, the price for a young woman's corpse was $4,500 to $7,500. Some wealthy families can afford these prices and are willing to pay them — sometimes directly to the still-grieving families of young women. According to The Guardian, a woman who passed away over the Lunar New Year in 2012 was sold by her family to another family who had recently lost a young man. It was later discovered by police that grave robbers had exhumed her body once more to sell to another family looking for a corpse bride.

It's impossible to know how deep the crime surrounding ghost weddings goes

In some areas of China, finding a corpse bride may prove difficult because of jobs that employ a large number of young male workers and have a high fatality rate. According to BBC, in Shanxi, where much of the grave robbing takes place, a lot of young men work in the coal mining industry, which is notoriously dangerous. Loved ones looking for a forever partner for their lost family member become desperate, and in some cases, like that of a grief-stricken father in Xianang City, they'll pay a team of grave robbers knowingly just to find a bride for the ceremony.

The BBC reported that murder has even been used as an alternative to grave robbing for the sake of ghost weddings. After police found a dead woman in a vehicle with three men, they learned that the men had killed that victim and another, both of who had mental disabilities, in order to sell their corpses for ghost weddings. It's difficult for anyone to know for sure just how deep the corpse bride crime ring really goes.

These days ghost weddings are rare, but they do happen

Ghost weddings aren't as common now as they once were for several reasons. First, not everyone is a fan of the eerie tradition of marrying the dead, whether it be to another dead person or not. According to The Guardian, In 1949 Mao Zedong tried to outlaw them entirely, and while they're extremely rare, they still take place in rural areas. What appears on the surface to be a tale right out of a Tim Burton movie is still very real in some parts of the world.

The ghost weddings remind us that it may not always be til death do us part –- especially if there's companionship to be desired in the afterlife to avoid an eternity of loneliness. Ultimately the families of these deceased young people are making an attempt to care for and honor their loved ones to the best of their abilities by securing them with a family beyond the grave. But, unfortunately, there will always be those like graverobbers that see grief as an opportunity to make a buck or two.