‘Till death do us part’ is how a Christian wedding vow traditionally ends and the lines emphasize the Christian belief that the human soul gets one chance at life after which either heaven or hell awaits them. However, most older civilizations and especially Asian cultures believe in reincarnation and in life after death and their marriage traditions thus reflect this binding of souls together through in lives after the current one (i.e., the Hindu marriage where it is believed that a couple entering wedlock stays “married” for seven incarnations or lives). However, according to a widespread Chinese tradition, even people who are no longer physically “alive” can be married off to fulfill a number of social requirements like lineage and propriety.
History of Ghost Marriages
Though the cultural existence of ghost marriage or the marriage between spirits or even a spirit and a living person are found across the globe (even parts of France), the tradition is most vividly alive in the Chinese culture. Dubbed mínghūn or pinyin, spirit marriage ties a deceased engaged couple together in a legally recognized marriage. In cases where one of the partners is alive, the marriage provides legal recognition and social status to the living partner. Nobody really knows when ghost marriages came into being but the practice is deeply rooted in the patriarchal society of China and is still practiced even among the more modern and westernized families. Ghost marriages were widely followed practiced during the high noon of Chinese immigration into the west as a way to forge ties with other immigrating families.
Why is ghost marriage practiced?
There are three main reasons for the existence of ghost marriages – 1. the Chinese have a strong tradition of worshiping their ancestors, 2. they really believe in ghosts and think that the spirit of a deceased person can cause trouble for the living, and 3. women can only claim lineage from their husband’s families and need to be married, even to a dead person, to have any rights over inheritance. Even though the practice may seem very outdated and superstitious to an outsider, the culture of China which is still deeply steeped in tradition keeps the ritual alive.
How are ghost marriages arranged?
Ghost marriages are often set up by marriage brokers, priests or diviners who match the deceased person’s horoscope with the horoscope of another deceased or living person and the family is then free to negotiate the proposal with the family of the prospective partner.
Rituals observed during a ghost marriage ceremony
Typical marriage rituals followed during a regular wedding are observed during a ghost marriage as well. if both or either of the partners are deceased, they are represented during the ceremony with effigies made of paper, bamboo, cloth, wood or a combination of these and the bride and groom’s ancestral tablets are placed inside their respective effigies. In a traditional wedding, material gifts such as household items including a fridge, clothes of trunks, dressing tables, tables and stools, money safe etc. are presented to the couple in front of everyone attending the ceremony. In a ghost marriage, these items too are represented in paper form and are burned along with the paper effigies of the deceased bride and groom to ensure that they can enjoy these comforts in the afterlife. During the marriage festivities, the effigies are treated as if they were living people and are spoken to and interacted with in the same manner.
Social scenarios that necessitate ghost marriage
The Chinese tradition of ghost marriage is most often set up by the families of engaged couples where one or both the partners have died before the wedding. The Chinese believe that an engagement ties the spirits of the couple together and also believe that the spirit of the deceased partner might be angered if their living fiancé were to be married to someone else and can cause health problems for the fiancé or their kin.
Even though as a communist nation China deems all its citizens equal before the law irrespective of their gender, the traditional Chinese society still remains deeply influenced by an extreme form of patriarchy where women are not considered a part of the families they are born in and cannot claim any inheritance or even lineage from their biological families. This places a strong emphasis on marriage and since marriage is the only arrangement that gives women any semblance of a status in society, practices like ghost marriage really become important.
Advantages of a ghost marriage for women
Viewed from a western point of view, ghost marriage may seem cruel and inhuman, but from a strictly traditional perspective, ghost marriages were originally intended to provide women with respect, lineage, inheritance, a family name and even children. Ghost marriages also help to integrate unmarried women within a patrilineage and provide them with a family to care for them since the society considers it stigmatic to have a spinster living at home with her birth parents.
Providing a deceased daughter with a patrilineage
More often than not, ghost marriages are arranged to ensure a family line for a deceased man whose spouse may adopt a child to continue his lineage. However, the tradition also allows women to create a lineage for themselves via their (ghost) husband’s family. In keeping with rituals and customs that honor dead family members in china, every household is required to maintain an alter with images of gods and spirit tablets that honor the paternal ancestors. This alter can only display the tablets of women married into the patrilineage of a family which necessitates the ghost marriage for unmarried women who have passed away. Women in Chinese culture acquire descent through marriage and a ghost marriage ensures a place for a deceased unmarried woman’s spirit tablet at the altar in her living or ghost husband’s home. This allows women who passed away before marriage to be cared for in spirit form by the descendants of the family she marries into via this custom.
Bride initiated spirit marriage
Like most Asian cultures, unmarried women are considered a burden for their biological family and put a strong emphasis on marriage. However, many women chose not to get married to take care of their biological families, a bride initiated spirit marriage serves as an alternative to remaining officially single and at home with their parents. The marriage-resistance practice helps women voluntarily avoid being married without their will while getting rid of the stigma of being an unwed daughter living at home.
Ghost marriage as a way to make adoption less stigmatic
In cases where a family chooses to continue a dead son’s lineage by marrying his spirit to a living girl, the daughter in law enjoys the same rights and responsibilities as one who came into the family by being married to a living person. The wife who comes into a family via a ghost marriage is expected to be a caregiver in the home and allows the family to adopt a child to carry on the deceased son’s name. generally, a patrilineally-related male child is “assigned” to the dead man’s lineage though this makes the adoption of non-related male heirs less stigmatic. The adopted son is expected to make ancestral offerings at the family alter to his parents and inherits the estate of his foster parents which may at times include the bridewealth or dowry that his foster mother (living or otherwise) was wedded into the family with.
Ghost marriages are arranged to facilitate wedding of younger brothers
in the Chinese culture, younger brothers cannot get married before their elder brothers have been married off. In case an older brother has passed away, a ghost marriage can be arranged to make way for the marriage of the younger brother and avoid the displeasure of the ghost of the dead older brother.
When ghosts request marriage themselves
Since the Chinese believe heavily in spirits and ghosts, they often interpret misfortune or illness in the family as the wrath of the deceased. The troubles of an unwed deceased’s married sisters, the family of their betrothed and their natal family are believed to be caused by the ghost of the unwed son or daughter who has found themselves without a spouse in the afterlife. More often than not, a medium or séance can pinpoint this cause via a divination and suggest ghost marriage to calm the ghost of the deceased. However, according to a remarkable anecdote popular among the Singapore Chinese, the ghost of a 14-year old Cantonese boy appeared to his mother in a dream and told her that he wished to be married to a girl who had died Ipoh, Perak recently as well. According to the tale, the ghost of the boy revealed the dead girl’s name, age, place of birth as well as horoscope details through a Cantonese female spirit medium which allowed his family to locate the dead girl’s family and the wedding was thus arranged. Though the story is more of an urban legend than hardcore fact, such instances are often heard of throughout the Chinese population around the world.
Posthumous marriages around the world
Even though ghost marriage as a tradition appears archaic for people coming from more liberal cultures, there have been instances of people marrying their dead partners around the world. Most notable of these instances have been the wedding of 22-year of Karen Jumeaux and Anthony Maillot. Karen evoked an obscure French law and won the right to marry her dead fiancé by petitioning President Sarkozy.