Deceased babies Chadappa and Shobha were married in a symbolic wedding ceremony on July 28 in the Indian state of Karnataka. Photo: Anny Arun
Chadappa and Shobha were married in a beautiful night time ceremony in India.Laughter and excitement rang through a brightly lit room as their families prepared for the Saptapadi – the seven-step Hindu marriage ritual that cements the union of husband and wife. But the couple wasn’t in the room. Only their clothes were. The bride and the groom died as babies almost 30 years ago. “Pretha Kalyanam” or “marriage of the dead” is a tradition practised among a few coastal communities in India’s Karnataka and Kerala states. The marriage ceremony is conducted between a bride and a groom who died as babies or teenagers under the age of 18.
“We are marrying off our eldest son soon, however before that, we wanted our deceased daughter to get married so that she will be happy and bless the family going forward,” the bride’s mother, Jayanthi Kulal told VICE World News. According to local cultural beliefs, restless spirits, denied of the social and emotional fulfilment of marriage, can bring bad luck to bereaved families especially for unmarried family members or those having trouble conceiving after marriage. Spirit marriages, which allow for the ritual completion of the life cycle, appease spirits into turning their malevolent attention away from the living.Clothes, dolls or effigies representing the deceased couple are used in the ceremonies which otherwise resemble ordinary Indian weddings. The weddings are fixed through the advice of priests and astrologers who arrange matches between deceased children. The scale of the practice, however, is undocumented as these posthumous marriages are not registered by law. In 2017, at least two Pretha Kalyanams were held in Kerala state, one of which garnered heavy media scrutiny. The deceased couple were represented through effigies made of wood and hay, and their marriage ceremony was completed under a tree, meant to symbolise the wedding hall. Once common, the tradition has dwindled, especially in cases involving neonatal deaths. According to Anny Arun, a cousin of the bride, improved medical care and living standards have contributed towards the shift. “Thirty years before, we did not have very good medical facilities like we have now,” Arun told VICE World News. This means fewer neonatal and child deaths, and therefore fewer deceased couples to marry off.
With rapid urbanisation, industrialization and high literacy rates in both Kerala and Karnataka, the practice has largely vanished from public view. The decrease in number has also been attributed to scepticism from younger generations who dismiss it as superstition. Intimate and discreet gatherings involving only close family members are more frequent as compared to events in the past which involved entire neighbourhoods. But despite the skepticism, Arun believes that the tradition is significant for bringing grieving families comfort and healing. “This practice helps parents cope with the grief and brings them closure, because for parents it is always difficult to lose a child.” Posthumous marriages are also practiced in China, Japan, South Sudan and France. However, distinct traditional nuances and legal procedures vary across cultures.In China’s “ghost marriages” which originated 3,000 years ago, marriages are arranged between the dead and sometimes involve a living person marrying a corpse. The practice was banned by the Chinese Communist government in 1949 but it continues to flourish in the country’s remote villages. The practice has resulted in criminal activities such as illegal exhumations and the selling of corpses to grieving families.In France, posthumous marriages between living and deceased people are legal but rare, with a rigorous application process and permission only granted at the discretion of the French president. The core sentiment behind these marriages is the universal predicament of human grief. “After the marriage, I no longer have bad dreams and we feel that she is happy in the afterlife,” said Kulal of her newlywed, albeit deceased, daughter. Follow Rimal Farrukh on Twitter.