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What is a Ghost Marriage?

Mary McMahon
By
Updated May 23, 2024
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Ghost marriages are legally-binding marriages in which one or both parties are deceased. They take place in many areas around the world, including China, Sudan, France, and the US, among others. Since they occur in such geographically diverse areas, there are many different purposes and ceremonies associated with them. There are also related practices in which widows and widowers are ceremonially married to family members as well.

Areas of Practice

Many different countries allow ghost marriage, but China, India, and Sudan are three areas that are particularly known for them. Despite this, the practice is not widespread in any of these areas in modern times, though it does still occasionally occur. Several of these types of marriages have taken place in France, the US, Korea, and Germany, among other places.

Purpose

There are many different purposes for a ghost marriage, but most have to do with societal expectations and family patterns, cultural history, and love or emotion. Sometimes they are performed when one partner in an engagement has died; other times, it's done to provide a widow with a caretaker. In these instances, the widow usually is cared for and has children by a stand-in — often a brother of the dead husband — but is still considered married to her original husband. Ceremonies may also be performed when a person believes that a ghost is requesting a spouse. A family might also have this type of ceremony performed for an older son so that a younger son can get married.

Some women choose to enter such a marriage as a means of allowing themselves to remain unmarried to anyone alive. This is more common in areas where remaining unmarried is seen as socially unacceptable. In cultures where being married allows a woman to control her own property or that of her deceased husband, women may also use this practice to retain independence. The marriages are sometimes also arranged for dead men so that they can have descendants to care for them after death. In this case, the dead man is usually joined to a widow who already has children. Sometimes, a woman with no children is chosen so that the family of the dead man can have a daughter-in-law to perform domestic tasks.

Many people also enter a ghost marriage for love, or to show their devotion to a deceased partner. This is fairly common in France and is often related to situations in which a long-term partner or fiance dies suddenly. Though the living spouse does not necessarily receive any inheritance from the dead one, his or her children will be considered as belonging to the dead spouse as well. Additionally, these marriages are sometimes performed for religious reasons, as some religions give preference to spouses in the afterlife.

Ceremonies

Posthumous marriage ceremonies vary widely according to culture. In French of American versions, the widow or widower generally stands next to a picture of his or her deceased spouse at the front of a church, and the typical wedding vows are often said in the past tense. In China, a formal wedding ceremony may be held in a temple, complete with the burning of offerings so that the partners have objects to use in the spirit world. Paper stand-ins are used for the deceased bride or groom, with these stand-ins being burned at the end of the ceremony along with the rest of the offerings. In cases where both partners are dead, their bones may be interred together.

Related Practices

Widow inheritance or Levirate marriage is somewhat similar to this tradition. In this tradition, a widow's marries a male relative of her dead husband, who then cares for her and all of her children. This is usually done for social reasons, and so that the children of the widow will be adequately provided for. It is practiced in various parts of Africa, Central Asia, and Indonesia, among other places.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a CulturalWorld.org researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By anon994650 — On Feb 25, 2016

Very interesting. Ghost marriage is a taboo thing for America. They should make documentaries of every culture that has ghost marriages.

By wavy58 — On Nov 13, 2012

With a ghost marriage, you are wed to the deceased in name only. You have the actual marriage relationship with his brother.

That just sounds so twisted to me. I don't understand the thinking behind this, but then again, I didn't grow up in a culture or religion that recognizes ghost marriages.

By orangey03 — On Nov 13, 2012

@cloudel – It is a sad thing to me. I don't know anyone who has married a dead person, but I do know a widow who continues to consider herself married to her deceased husband.

He was the love of her life. They met as teenagers, and there could never be another for her.

He died at the young age of 35, and I truly don't believe she will ever remarry. She still calls him her husband, and she wears his wedding ring on a chain around her neck. She hasn't taken her own wedding ring off, and it's been nearly two years.

They had three children together. The kids only have their mother to take care of them, because their father had no brothers.

By cloudel — On Nov 12, 2012

I live in America, and I've never heard of this. While I get why someone would want to marry into a family of a deceased individual to have people to care for them and to consider family, I still don't think I could tie myself to someone who was dead.

What if I found love again later in life? There would be no way to get a divorce. I would lose all the relationships I had made with the dead husband's family.

I think a ghost marriage is a terrible thing, because it keeps you living in the past. You will never feel fully alive if you are married to a dead person.

By anon175164 — On May 12, 2011

No, Chinese women never had the freedom to divorce when alive, much less after being dead.

By anon157197 — On Mar 01, 2011

There is much to admire in Chinese culture, but its misogynistic aspect is not part of that, and there are few more misogynistic cultures. Past that, ghost marriage makes much sense to we who are traditional in our non-majority cultures.

By anon156989 — On Mar 01, 2011

Interesting. Therefore, can you have a Ghost Divorce?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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