China's 'ghost marriages' see dead dug up for macabre marriages despite government crackdowns

“Ghost marriages” remain common in China despite repeated attempts to stamp out the practice.
PHOTO: Pexels

This week, the theft of a woman's ashes shocked China. The woman, a live-streamer from Shandong province, eastern China, had taken her own life last month.

After she was cremated her ashes were stolen by funeral home staff to sell to a local family, to be "wed" and buried with their dead son. The local police detained three funeral home workers allegedly involved and vowed to crack down on ghost marriages and said it will launch inspections of all funeral facilities.

Even though the case is coming to a close, it has revealed that a notorious superstition in China is still alive and kicking, despite an ongoing government crackdown.

The purpose of a "ghost marriage" is to find a partner for a deceased person. Some elderly Chinese still believe that if people die without fulfilling their wishes such as getting married, they will not rest peacefully and will return to haunt others.

The practice was banned as far back as imperial times, but many people continued the practice in secrecy, surviving records show. When unmarried men or women died, their parents would hire a matchmaker to help them "marry" suitable corpses and bury them together.

In modern times, the practice was banned again by the incoming Chinese Communist government in 1949, but continues to persist in remote villages, especially in northern China. The rituals involved in a "ghost marriage" are much like those of a standard arranged marriage for the living.

The parents seek a suitable match for their children through a matchmaker or by word of mouth. Then they ask about the other family, the potential spouse's occupation, age, and ask to see a photo to make sure it's a match. Then, they host a wedding ceremony, dig up the corpses, and bury the two bodies together in a new grave.

The price of a female body is usually determined by a range of factors, including age, how "fresh" the body is, how complete the remains are, physical appearance and family background, according to the China News Weekly.

Price calculations can vary widely but for example, women who died of an illness tend to cost more than those who died in a traffic accident.

It's often difficult for parents to find a match who died close to the time their own child did, so gradually matchmaking business catering to "ghost marriages" sprang up.

One matchmaker with 30 years experience told the China News Weekly that the market has flourished over the years. In the 1990s a match would cost around 5,000 yuan (S$1,073), and in the 2000s it grew to 50,000 yuan.

By 2010, 100,000 yuan would only ensure a basic match, and by 2016, you "couldn't even buy a bone" for less than 150,000 yuan, the matchmaker said.

Gradually, theft and even murder developed to serve a growing demand for "ghost marriages". Families kept an eye on hospitals and funeral homes and struck deals with staff, handing over money in return for fresh corpses.

China News Weekly reported that from 2013 to 2016, 27 female corpses were dug up and stolen from their graves at just one small town in Shanxi province, central China. In the face of high profit, some have turned to the living to find potential spouses.

A court document from Gansu province in northwest China shows that a man murdered two mentally ill women and sold their bodies for ghost marriages. He was found guilty of murder and sentenced to death earlier this year. China has been making efforts to clamp down on such incidents.

According to the country's Criminal Law, anyone who steals, rapes or damages a corpse can be sentenced to up to three years in prison.

Local governments have also issued warning notices and launched crackdowns. But China's legal experts have argued it's not enough to just tighten restrictions on the seller, and called for more action against matchmakers and buyers.

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This article was first published in South China Morning Post.