CHENJIAYUAN, China — For many Chinese, an ancestor is someone to honor, but also someone whose needs must be maintained. Families burn offerings of fake money or paper models of luxury cars in case an ancestor might need pocket change or a stylish ride in the netherworld.
But here in the parched canyons along the Yellow River known as the Loess Plateau, some parents with dead bachelor sons will go a step further. To ensure a son’s contentment in the afterlife, some grieving parents will search for a dead woman to be his bride and, once a corpse is obtained, bury the pair together as a married couple.
The rural folk custom, startling to Western sensibilities, is known as minghun, or afterlife marriage. Scholars who have studied it say it is rooted in the Chinese form of ancestor worship, which holds that people continue to exist after death and that the living are obligated to tend to their wants — or risk the consequences. Traditional Chinese beliefs also hold that an unmarried life is incomplete, which is why some parents worry that an unmarried dead son may be an unhappy one.
In some villages, a son is eligible for such a spouse if he is 12 or older when he dies. None of the people interviewed considered the custom shameful or overly macabre. Instead, it was described as a parental duty to a lost child that reflected Confucian values about loyalty to family.
“Parents have a sense of responsibility for their son,” said one woman, Li Yinlan. She said she had attended ceremonies where the coffins were placed side by side and musicians played a dirge. “They have this custom everywhere,” she said of her region.
The Communist Party has tried, with mixed success, to stamp out beliefs it considers to be superstition. But the continued practice of the ancient custom in the Loess Plateau is a testament to the region’s extreme isolation. In other parts of rural China, it is difficult to know how often, if at all, the custom is followed.
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