'Ghost Marriages' Prompt Grave Robbing as Men Dig Up Brides

Chinese see surge in ancient tradition of buying "brides" for dead bachelors.

ByABC News
March 5, 2013, 9:22 AM

BEIJING March 6, 2013— -- Four men in northwest China have been sentenced to prison for the grisly crime of digging up the corpses of 10 women and selling them for "ghost marriages."

The grotesque "brides" were sold for a total of 240,000 RMB, or $38,000, according to court reports. The grave robbers were sentenced to prison terms ranging from two years and four months to two years and eight months in prison.

The bodies were sought by families of men who died as bachelors. The buyers were arranging "ghost marriages," a traditional custom in which parents find "spouses" for their unmarried, deceased children so that they can have a family in the afterlife.

The cadavers were stolen from their graves in Ya'an province beginning in the winter of 2011, according to reports. They were dug up in the middle of the night and hid in the thieves' homes where the corpses were cleaned up. Forged medical records were created in hopes of making it appear the corpses were only recently deceased and coming from reliable sources, allowing them to charge premium prices.

Ghost marriages are a 3,000 year-old custom that is especially common in rural parts of north China where young men often die in coal mining accidents. When a young man dies a bachelor, family members may consider it unnatural, and fear that the deceased's spirit may be restless.

Wan Jianhong, director of the Institute of Folklore and Cultural Anthropology at Beijing Normal University, said some folks fear that the unquiet ghost would come back to haunt them, causing all sorts of trouble for his family, and searching for a scapegoat replace his death, so that he could be reborn. Parents hope that by arranging a "ghost marriage" they could comfort the deceased son's soul, and save him from a lonely afterlife.

Ghost marriages were outlawed decades ago, but have been making a comeback as China's economy has boomed. Rural families are better off and able to afford ghost brides.

Times have changed since two families would meet and arrange to marry off their deceased children. Now a new market for brokers, known as "ghost matchmakers," has sprung up. The price of corpses on the black market can reach as high as thousands of dollars. The younger, prettier and more recently deceased a female corpse is, the higher the price she commands.

A growing demand for fresh female corpses has fueled the trade in bodysnatching.

Chinese media have reported cases of brokers murdering women and selling their bodies for ghost marriages. In 2006, a man from northern Hebei province murdered six women and sold them as "ghost brides."

The Qingming Festival, also known as tomb sweeping day, is coming up next month. That is the day when people honor their deceased ancestors. It is also thought to be the most auspicious day for ghost marriages and engagements.