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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. The rural folk custom, startling to Western sensibilities, is known as minghun, or afterlife marriage. 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 random interviews in different villages across the Loess Plateau, which spreads across parts of Shanxi and Shaanxi Provinces, everyone acknowledged the custom. People say parents of a dead son depend on an informal network of friends or family, or even a well-connected fixer, to locate a family that has recently lost a single daughter.
Selling or buying corpses for commercial purposes is illegal in China, but these individual transactions, usually for cash, seem to fall into a fuzzier category and are quietly arranged between families. 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. She said she had attended ceremonies where the coffins were placed side by side and musicians played a dirge.
The Communist Party has tried, with mixed success, to stamp out beliefs it considers to be superstition. In other parts of rural China, it is difficult to know how often, if at all, the custom is followed.