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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

"Till death do us part" is no obstacle to a posthumous marriage

Illustration for article titled "Till death do us part" is no obstacle to a posthumous marriage
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Wiki WormholeWe explore some of Wikipedia’s oddities in our 5,664,405-week series, Wiki Wormhole.

This week’s entry: Posthumous marriage

What it’s about: Those times when it’s too late for “till death do us part.” All over the world, people have legally married someone who was already deceased. In most instances, one half of the couple dies shortly before the wedding, and the surviving partner continues on, although the reasons for that vary, as we discovered.

Biggest controversy: Mormons still practice polygamy, just so long as everyone involved is dead. The LDS Church performs garden variety marriages, but for couples for whom “till death do us part” doesn’t go far enough, there’s the eternal marriage, or sealing. This super-marriage means the couple’s souls are bound together even in the afterlife. The practice is done posthumously, but only when the couple was married in life. (Two living people stand in for the deceased during the ceremony.) However, a man who was widowed and remarried can be sealed to both wives once everyone involved is dead. (The church only recently extended the offer to women who were married more than once.) “Sealing” is actually far less controversial than the Mormon practice of posthumously baptizing people—even non-Mormons—without their knowledge or consent.

Strangest fact: In China, posthumous marriage is called “ghost marriage,” and while rare, it’s sometimes performed so a dead man’s widow can carry his family line on by adopting a child. However, the widow would be expected to take a vow of celibacy, remaining faithful to the memory of her deceased partner. (Further details on ghost marriage aren’t clear; this section is confusingly worded.) Sudan has a similar tradition in which, if a man dies shortly before his wedding, his brother will take his place in the marriage, and any progeny are considered children of the deceased.


Thing we were happiest to learn: France takes posthumous marriage seriously. Requests are made directly to the president, who passes it down to the justice minister and then a local official, but it goes back to the president for approval, and three-quarters of applications are approved. The tradition goes back to the ’50s, when a dam burst, killing 400 people. The fiancé of one of the deceased, Iréne Jodart, asked Charles de Gaulle himself for permission to go ahead with their planned nuptials, and de Gaulle approved. By French law, posthumously married couples have no shared property, meaning the surviving spouse cannot inherit anything from the deceased one. But people marrying posthumously tend to be more motivated by expressing love for their deceased partner, and showing resolve to celebrate love even in the face of death.

Thing we were unhappiest to learn: The Nazis separated couples who could only be reunited in death. Fritz Pfeffer appears in Anne Frank’s Diary Of A Young Girl, usually under the pseudonym Albert Dussel. The two did not get along, and although he was a fellow Jew in hiding, Frank’s portrayal isn’t favorable. (For starters, “Dussel” means “nitwit.”) But Pfeffer’s story is a heartbreaking one. He loved a woman named Charlotte Kaletta, but he couldn’t marry her, as she was a gentile, and mixed marriages were forbidden by the Nuremberg Laws. As the Nazi regime worsened, Pfeffer went into hiding, communicating with Kaletta via letters, although even she didn’t know his location. Eventually he was found and taken to the Westerbork concentration camp, where he was sentenced to hard labor, then sent to Auschwitz, where he died of an illness in 1944, at age 55. Six years later, Kaletta married him posthumously, retroactive to 1937, when the couple first intended to wed.

Also noteworthy: Mormons aren’t the only ones who marry posthumously for religious reasons. Reverend Sun Myung Moon’s Unification Church considers marriage a prerequisite for “the highest level of heaven.” For that reason, the wedding of Moon’s son, Heung Jin, went ahead even after the groom was killed in a car accident a few weeks before the ceremony.

Best link to elsewhere on Wikipedia: Although both are covered here, Chinese ghost marriage has a page distinct from this one, as does the Sundanese variety. There’s a link to both, as well as a separate one to minghun, the Chinese word for ghost marriage, which leads to the same page.


Further down the Wormhole: For whatever reason, TV and film seem to be under the impression that ghost marriage involves murdering one of the partners before the ceremony. Bones, Numb3rs, and Without A Trace all have episodes in which one or more Chinese women were killed so they could marry an already-dead man, despite real-life ghost marriage involving the deceased marrying a still-living fiancé. This was also part of the plot of The Maid, a 2005 horror film from Singapore, in which a Filipino woman moves to China during “ghost month,” the month when “the gates of hell open,” which is totally something that happens every year in China, according to the film. She eventually learns her employers planned to murder her so she could “marry” their dead son. (Again, not how it works.) The Maid belongs to a long and rich tradition of movies about ghosts, which we’ll insist we ain’t afraid of next week.

Host of the podcast Why Is This Not a Movie? His sixth book, The Planets Are Very, Very, Very Far Away is due in early 2021. He tells people he lives in New York, but he really lives in New Jersey.

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