Something evil stalks the cemeteries and burial grounds in China. Rather than some unearthly presence, the problem is grounded squarely in the terrestrial plain. Reviving an ancient tradition from the tenth century’s Song Dynasty, modern day grave robbers are playing matchmaker for the dead.
Most cultures on Earth have some concern with an individual dying alone, without loved ones nearby to provide support and comfort. In China, however, the situation is more serious. An old belief, popular among the inhabitants of rural areas throughout the countryside, is that it is bad luck for a single man to enter the afterlife without a female at his side. Coupled with this belief is an understanding that these occurrences bring bad luck to the man’s family and that the male’s ghost will haunt them. In order to ward off this bad luck and the evil spirits that go along with it, family members will find a ghost bride for the dead male.
According to tradition, these ghost weddings return balance to the family. There are varying levels of ghost marriages. The more basic ones involve molds of dough or clay with black beans for eyes, or silver statuettes, being buried next to the deceased male. However, the ‘best’ ghost weddings involve corpse brides, dug up from another grave, reinforced with wire, dressed in new clothing, and reburied next to the deceased single man. The problem is that these corpses are stolen from unsuspecting families who in turn are unable to perform appropriate levels of ancestor worship, such as burning fake money at the annual Tomb Sweeping Festival held every April.
Ghost marriages were officially banned by the communist government after the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949. As the nation began experiencing increased wealth over the last few years though, the ghoulish practice has reemerged. The northern provinces of Shanxi, Henan, and Shaanxi have seen over thirty cases of grave robbing within the last three years. In all likelihood, many more corpse brides have been stolen, but it is difficult for family members to keep track of the bodies of the deceased.
The tradition has gained so much traction in recent years that entire matchmaking agencies of the dead have been established to connect the families of deceased, single males with the families of women who have recently died. The government allows these agencies to function, in part because it recognizes that such activities are a result of the One Child Policy imposed on the nation for over thirty years. However, these agencies are unable to keep up with demand, leading others to steal bodies. The incentives are high for the thieves, with fresh corpse brides fetching over $15,600. In 2011, a man was arrested for killing his wife and then trying to sell her body as a corpse bride. Three years ago, four men were arrested after selling ten bodies for nearly $40,000. Even old, decomposed bodies can be sold for over $760. The thieves are emboldened by the relatively minor punishment for stealing corpses, which is up to three years in prison.
With authorities unable to curb the problem, Chinese families have adopted a number of ways to protect their deceased loved ones. Rather than burying the female members of their families on distant mountainsides, families are constructing tombs next to their homes. Others have encased the tombs in concrete. Affluent families have begun building fences around tombs, installing CCTV cameras, and hiring security guards to conduct daily patrols to ensure their dead family members stay buried.