Since times immemorial Chinese believed that man can be happy only in marriage, and unmarried people are socially handicapped and greatly disadvantaged. In earthly life (so short!) everyone aspires to find a mate. After death, in the endless afterlife, every person meets his/her dead friends and relatives. Afterlife is good for those who were righteous in their earthly life for there is no divorce in thereafter. If couples shared a happy married life, they are destined to stay together forever after.
Bachelors, however, are in a great disadvantage because they can never find a mate in the after-world. Chinese people care for their dead a great deal. They simply cannot let their unmarried deceased loved one to be unhappy in the afterlife for eternity. Thus living relatives look for a “dead bride” for the dead bachelor. When found, the “newlyweds” are buried together, to start married life in the “other world.” And this marriage is considered perfectly legal!
The history of a ghost marriage (Chinese: 冥婚; pinyin: mínghūn; literally: “spirit marriage” goes back to antiquity. In those years, the infant mortality was very high, so many had no time to get married before succumbing to death. Hence the tradition of afterlife weddings. Archaeologists often find ancient tombs of opposite sex children buried together. Inscriptions on the graves say that these kids are married.Ghost marriages were officially banned by the communist government after the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949. As the nation began experiencing increased wealth over the last few years though, the ghoulish practice has reemerged, particularly in the northern provinces of Shanxi, Henan, and Shaanxi.
There are varying levels of ghost marriages. The more basic ones involve molds of dough or clay with black beans for eyes, or silver statuettes, being buried next to the deceased male. However, the ‘best’ ghost weddings involve corpse brides, dug up from another grave, reinforced with wire, dressed in new clothing, and reburied next to the deceased single man. The problem is that these corpses are stolen from unsuspecting families who in turn are unable to perform appropriate levels of ancestor worship, such as burning fake money at the annual Tomb Sweeping Festival held every April.
The tradition has gained so much traction in recent years that entire matchmaking agencies of the dead have been established to connect the families of deceased, single males with the families of women who have recently died. The government allows these agencies to function, in part because it recognizes that such activities are a result of the One Child Policy imposed on the nation for over thirty years. However, these agencies are unable to keep up with demand, leading others to steal bodies. The incentives are high for the thieves, with fresh corpse brides fetching over $15,600. In 2011, a man was arrested for killing his wife and then trying to sell her body as a corpse bride. Three years ago, four men were arrested after selling ten bodies for nearly $40,000. Even old, decomposed bodies can be sold for over $760. The thieves are emboldened by the relatively minor punishment for stealing corpses, which is up to three years in prison.
With authorities unable to curb the problem, Chinese families have adopted a number of ways to protect their deceased loved ones. Rather than burying the female members of their families on distant mountainsides, families are constructing tombs next to their homes. Others have encased the tombs in concrete. Affluent families have begun building fences around tombs, installing CCTV cameras, and hiring security guards to conduct daily patrols to ensure their dead family members stay buried.