In Chinese tradition, a ghost marriage (Chinese: 冥婚; pinyin: mínghūn; literally: “spirit marriage”) is a marriage in which one or both parties are deceased.:99 Other forms of ghost marriage are practiced worldwide, from Sudan, to India, to France since 1959 (see Levirate marriage, Ghost marriage in Sudan and Posthumous marriage). The origins of Chinese ghost marriage are largely unknown, and reports of it being practiced today can be found.
In Sudan, a ghost marriage is a marriage where a deceased groom is replaced by his brother. The brother serves as a stand in to the bride, and any resulting children are considered children of the deceased spouse. This unusual type of marriage is nearly exclusive to the Dinka (Jieng) and Nuer tribes of Southern Sudan, although instances of such marriages have also occurred in France.
Nuer women do not marry deceased men only to continue the man’s bloodline. In accordance to Nuer tradition, any wealth owned by the woman becomes property of the man after the marriage. Thus, a wealthy woman may marry a deceased man to retain her wealth, instead of giving it up after marrying. Among the Nuer, a ghost marriage is nearly as common as a marriage to a live man.
Levirate marriage has been practiced by societies with a strong clan structure in which exogamous marriage (i.e. marriage outside the clan) was forbidden. It has been known in many societies around the world. The practice is similar to widow inheritance, where, for example, the deceased husband’s kin can dictate whom the widow may marry.
The term is a derivative of the Latin word levir meaning “husband’s brother”.
Instances of Levirate marriage have been documented in Judaism, Islam, Scythia, Central Asia and Xiongnu, Kirghiz, Indonesia, Somalia, Cameroon, Nigeria, Kenya, South Africa, South Sudan, Zimbabwe and England.
The Hallmark movie, “Loving Leah” addressed the issue of Levirate marriage in an Orthodox Hasidic Jewish community.
In Shakespeare’s, “Hamlet” the brother of the deceased King Hamlet, Claudius, marries the widow Gertrude in the name of defending her and the realm.