Weddings and the Dead

Written by: Katy Meyers Emery

Primary Source: Bones Don’t Lie

I’ve been thinking about weddings a lot recently. It’s not just that I’m planning my own wedding which is less than ten weeks away, I’m also in my little brother’s wedding which is right around the corner. Of course, I can’t resist looking into the darker and death-related aspects of weddings and wedding planning. Weddings are a contract we enter into ‘until death’, and in some cultures there are more literal translations of the ‘death’ part. So instead of figuring out what to put on my registry or finally spend some time trying to find a veil, we’re going to look at the relationship of death and weddings.

Weddings of the Dead

Chinese man marrying his deceased girlfriend, via Just Khaotic

Chinese man marrying his deceased girlfriend, via Just Khaotic

According to Chinese tradition, a ghost marriage is the unification of one or two deceased individuals to one another. One common version of this is where if the two are engaged and the man doesn’t survive to the wedding, the woman can still become a part of the deceased groom’s family by marrying his ghost. The reason for this is that an unmarried Chinese woman has no ancestors she can worship until she is married- by marrying the ghost, she becomes part of the husband’s patrilineage and has access to his ancestors. It was also a way that a woman could be considered part of a family with ancestors, but maintain her independent life. Further, the family benefits from having any offspring of the woman as part of their family line. Another reason they occur is that the spirit itself may request a spouse in the afterlife. It is believed that the ghosts of one’s family can cause minor harm to living members- such as sickness- and in order to appease them, a wedding is performed between two deceased individuals. There are actually ghost matchmakers who will arrange marriages between deceased unmarried individuals to help placate the dead. If you’ve seen the TV show “Bones”, you know there was an episode where a young woman was murdered in order to provide a wife for a deceased man- while this does actually happen (click here for the example), it is more common that both parties die of natural causes.

This practice of ghost marriage is also found in other cultures including France, South Korea, Thailand, Sudan, Germany during the Holocaust, Japan, and there is even a US example- although it isn’t quite a complete wedding.

Til Death Do Us Part

 

Sati in Bali, via Wikimedia

Sati in Bali, via Wikimedia

Sati refers to an Indian funeral practice in which the wife of the deceased husband jumps or is thrown onto his funeral pyre so that she can die with him. The practice is found in historic records from India, Bali and Indonesia. It started around the 5th century, and rose to popularity in the 12th century. During the 19th century it was outlawed by the British government, and officially banned by Indian government officials in 1987. Originally the term ‘sati’ was used to describe the ‘chaste woman’ or ‘good wife’, not the practice itself. The rite was viewed as an honorable act, and the woman would be venerated after. It was thought that this way the honor of the wife would be preserved after the death of the husband. In most descriptions, the wife voluntarily entered the cremation pyre.

The practice of the sacrifice of the widow, or death of a woman along with a man isn’t limited to Hindu practices. Greek historian, Herodotus, noted that in the Krestones tribe the wife who was most treasured by a deceased husband would have her throat slit so that she could join him in the afterlife, and any surviving wives were viewed with shame. The 6th century CE Germanic tribe, the Heruli, expected that a widow would hang herself on her husband’s tomb. This practice has also been mentioned by Natchez people in present day US and a number of Pacific Islander cultures. A highly regarded example for fans of literature or of the TV show “Vikings”, is the sacrifice of a female slave at the death of her master to allow him to have a companion in death. The girl is drugged, allowed to be with all the men in the village, her throat is cut, and then she is added to the ship of the deceased master before it is burned and sent into the sea.

Sadly, the only example I could find of a man joining a woman in the afterlife was the movie “Corpse Bride”, and while I have a personal fondness for it, it isn’t much comfort for us ladies.

The Dead Bride

La Pasculita’s Life Like Hand, via Atlas Obscura

La Pasculita’s Life Like Hand, via Atlas Obscura

In Mexico, there is a bridal mannequin that has been in the window of a bridal shop for the past 75 years. Nicknamed, La Pascualita, it is rumored that she is actually the perfectly preserved corpse of the original shop owner’s daughter. According to legend, in the 1930′s, the shop owner’s daughter was to be married and on the day of her wedding she died after being bitten by a black widow spider. Soon after her death, a very life-like mannequin who resembled the daughter appeared in her father’s bridal gown shop. Unlike most mannequins, she has wide set sparkling eyes, a blushing skin tone and real hair. Her clothing is changed twice a week behind closed curtains, and only a select few are given this privilege. Stories of her shifting position and holding someone’s gaze are common. She is also viewed to be lucky for brides who purchase dresses that she has worn in her display window. Despite how oddly life-like she is (I mean seriously, her hands are super creepy), it isn’t that easy to preserve a corpse as we’ve seen from examples like Lenin or Mao who are basically made of rubber. Even the most well preserved corpse- Rosalia Lombardo– is kept in a sealed container and only her head is visible. (See more about her here at Atlas Obscura)

Single and a Ghost?

Don’t worry! If you are dead and looking for love, there is a dating website for you. Check out: http://www.ghostsingles.com/

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Katy Meyers Emery
Katy is currently a graduate student studying mortuary archaeology at Michigan State University. Her academic interests are in mortuary and bioarchaeology, with a specific interest in connecting the physical remains to the mortuary context. Along with this, she is also interested in Digital Humanities, and the integration of technology into academia, as well as public archaeology and outreach.
Katy Meyers Emery

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