I often get asked questions about ghosts and the queries are usually something I can write about, but when I was asked if you can legally marry a ghost my first thoughts were "haha, idiot". But, it turns out that you can actually marry a ghosts, although there are certain caveats.
In parts of the world, most notably France and China, ghost marriages are legal. Not only are they legal, they're a thing, they actually happen... regularly. It's called posthumous marriage and is literally a marriage where one of the happy couple is deceased.
The Chinese call it minghun or a spirit marriage, and they're often instigated at the request of a ghost. When the deceased finds itself without a spouse in the spirit realm it causes misfortune for its family, or the family of its fiancé. It's said that this is usually in the form of a sickness in one or more family members which can't be cured by ordinary means. The spirt often informs the family of its needs for a spouse through a medium during a séance, or it may appear to a family member in a dream.
Ghost marriages in China are pretty common, but the majority of proposals don't come from beyond the grave and it's always a woman who marries the deceased. If a woman should happen to lose her fiancé before they are married, the bride is often encouraged to go through with the wedding. In Chinese culture it's considered shameful to be the parent of an unmarried woman so the family push the marriage through to alleviate the embarrassment.
A traditional Chinese wedding ceremony is performed but with either a white cockerel, or an effigies made of bamboo to represent the deceased. As part of the mourning process the bride must take a vow of celibacy, and then move in with her deceased husband's family in order to continue the family line.
Another reason for ghost marriages in China is as a result of the custom which dictates that younger brothers should not marry before their elder brothers. In order to avoid bad fortune in the case where an older brother has died before he was married, a ghost marriage is performed before the wedding of the younger brother.
In France the trend of ghost marriage started after War World I when women married their betrothed via proxy after they had been kill in service. Today, surprisingly, these kinds of marriage are still practiced. They generally happen soon after an accidental or untimely death where the couple had already planned to get married.
These marriages don't always get approved, of course the family of the deceased need to agree to the ceremony and the living partner must be able to irrefutably prove the existing intent of marriage. Eerily the wedding ceremony consist of the bride or groom standing next to a photo of the deceased and using the phrased "I did" rather than "I do", as the marriage is retroactively back dated to the day before the spouse died. Of course, the words "until death do us part" are dropped for the formalities.
But what if both parties are already dead? Well back in China the double-dead ghost wedding is something that happens often too. According to anthropologist Marjorie Topley, a month after the death of a 14-year-old boy, he appeared to his mother in a dream saying that he wanted to marry a girl who had recently died in Malaysia. The boy didn't tell his mother the girl's name, so she used a psychic to communicate with her son to obtain the girl's name, age, and place of birth. This information alone was enough to perform a legal marriage ceremony.
Another Chinese tradition states that it's unlucky for a man to die unmarried, so where possible the family will perform a ghost marriage between their son and a "corpse bride". It seems there's a growing trend of paying for deceased single women's corpse in order to bury them next to a bachelor following a spirit marriage ceremony.
This story gets a little darker at this point. It seems that there have been reports in Chinese press of bodies being stolen from graves and sold to the grieving families of bachelors. Police in Southern Shanxi's Hongtong County said that in the last three years more than 30 bodies were stolen for profit.
Once a family acquires a corpse, the bride's skeleton is reinforced with metal wires, it's dressed and then buried alongside the groom.
This is a tradition that dates back centuries but it was banned in 1949 by Chairman Mao. The ban forced families to resort to burying their loved ones with dummies made of paper or pictures. As wealth has increased in China, the tradition of using real corpses has returned to some areas.
Despite a potential prison sentence of at least three year, the corpse trade is big business. A freshly snatched body can sell for more than £10,000 and even an old, decomposed body can fetch over £500. Last year, three men were arrested after trying to sell bodies for more than £25,000.