A young woman is on the cusp of death as a procession of strangers passes her door.
It’s urgent. Time is running out.
These people do not know the young woman, but news of her condition has leaked outside the hospital’s walls, and many have come to visit her. They need to make an arrangement with her parents before she passes. Talk of money and grief and celebration springs.
That arrangement made in hospital corridors is a jarring one. Dozens of families from the girl’s rural town in China will try to negotiate what her corpse will be worth.
They want to make the woman a ghost bride.
What is a ghost marriage?
As reported by ABC this weekend, ghost marriages are a 3000-year long tradition that is still practiced across some regions in rural China.
Following on from the belief that the dead continue to live on in the afterlife, and that a truly wholesome life is one of monogamy and commitment, some believe that dying a bachelor or bachelorette is to die in a veil of shame.
And so, for traditionalists in regions like the province of Shanxi, men who die single cannot be buried with their loved ones. As for single women? They cannot be buried at all. That is, until they are wedded posthumously.
Being able to bury deceased loved ones with the rest of the family is, understandably, critically important to those grieving, and so ghost marriages are taken very seriously; some even work as professional “matchmakers”, pairing lost souls together with a cocktail of sadness and relief.
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After striking a deal, which can include money, jewellery, or even property, a ceremony – something that sits between a funeral and a wedding – will be held with both families present. A few days later, the bride and groom will be laid to rest at his family’s gravesite.
How does a ghost marriage work?
In the past, ghost weddings have been between two deceased individuals, although, according to ABC, more recently it is not uncommon for a deceased man to be married to a dying woman. An “auction war” between competing families commences while she is on her deathbed.
“Usually when the auction is over and the girl’s family promises to deliver her body to the winning parents, the girl is still alive,” Wang Yong, an employee at Shanxi hospital, reportedly told Chinese media of the practice.
If a woman is deceased, her family may sell her remains to the highest bidder – something that is unregulated and is yet to be outlawed in China. The price of her corpse is said to begin at about 150,000 yuan (AU$31,059).
When you consider that China’s population is increasingly imbalanced – there are some 32.66 million more men than women – the price of ghost brides has skyrocketed.
In the most sickening sense, women’s bones are more valuable than ever.
So terrified are families that their sons may be damned in the afterlife, ghost weddings have been linked to at least 12 prominent murder cases, further instances of kidnapping and even grave robberies in the Shanxi region.
According to BBC, women with mental disabilities or impairments are at particular risk; in 2016 a man from north-west China was charged with the murders of two women with disabilities. Authorities found he was intending to sell the women’s remains to families seeking ghost brides.
Ghost weddings are not only linked to northern and central China, though. In France, posthumous marriages are legal so long as the bride or groom can prove their deceased partner had the intention of marrying them while alive.
In 2009, then 26-year-old Magali Jaskiewicz wed her deceased fiancé and father of her two children. The man had died suddenly in a car accident just two days after proposing.
“I’m not really in the mood to celebrate,” Jaskiewicz told The Guardian after the ceremony, where she was pictured in a white dress and veil beside her partner’s coffin. “We’re going to drink a cup of coffee and I will thank those who have supported me.”
According to Christophe Caput, the mayor who married the pair, the bride took the surname of the groom, and decided to wear her ring around her neck.
“[She] became a widow at her wedding,” he said.