Remembering a mysterious Japanese death ritual: “marriage of the dead”

By: Justin Nobel | Date: Sun, April 3rd, 2011

A year ago I took a train from Tokyo to Sendai, a city in the center of the region ravaged by last month’s tsunami, to speak with a PhD student named Takemi Odajima, an expert in mysterious death rituals.

In Japan, the high death toll from the tsunami has forced bodies to be kept in makeshift morgues and buried by the dozen in hastily dug mass graves, a stark contrast for a culture used to eloquent mortuary rituals. One little known about practice is “marriage of the dead”.

Odajima was born near Tokyo, attended a small Catholic college in eastern Pennsylvania and returned to Japan to study at Tohoku University, named for the vast hinterland region in which it lies. Tohoku is a kind of Japanese Appalachia; inhabitants speak with a twang, are regarded by some urbanites as simpleminded and backwards and have their own section in Japanese joke books. The region is also a storied land rich in folklore, one that has long drawn wanderers, like famous seventeenth century haiku poet Basho, and, Kunio Yanagita, the godfather of Japanese ethnology. The eastern part of Tohoku fronts the Pacific, a remote coastline dotted with pristine coves and tiny fishing villages; towns obliterated in the tsunami. The coves are now combed daily for bodies.

As I read grim tales from the tsunami, of bodies being kept in makeshift morgues and buried by the dozen in hastily dug mass graves, I am reminded of Odajima, and the main focus of his research, a ritual known as “marriage of the dead”. It means exactly as it implies, a union between a bride and a groom, both dead. In Japanese the practice is called mukasari ema; it is unique to Yamagata prefecture, in western Tohoku, and typically occurs among poorer families. The phenomenon is surprisingly new, beginning in the 1980s. Little research has been done on it, and as I was there to talk to Odajima about a different ritual entirely I didn’t press him too much on marriage of the dead. But the tsunami has reminded me of Odajima and the elegant death rituals he studies, a stark contrast to the funerals going on now. I decided to look back into marriage of the dead but couldn’t find much; a few references in Japanese, a mention in a webpage on Mormonism and a citation in the index of a book on the “Popular Science” of 1897, between “Maori Tattooing” and “Marsupials and their Skins”. But there was one recent story, from India.

In a rural community in the country’s southwest, nearly 200 relatives gathered to marry Vishalakshi, a girl who would have been 35 had she not died of illness at age 11, and Yadaya, a soldier in the Indian Army killed eight years prior in a skirmish near Rajastan. The marriage came about because both families were going through hard times they believed were linked to their children dying unwed. In searching for beyond the grave marriage partners the families were put in touch with one another. “Both the families had been advised by certain deities and astrologers to arrange a marriage of the dead in order to resolve their problems,” said the bride’s nephew.

The wedding included a traditional Indian marriage procession. Empty wooden seats were decorated with a sari for the bride and elders placed a garland on a dress meant for her. A peta, or turban, was placed on the seat designated for the groom. There was a dance and a small dowry was given so that the couple could live happily in the hereafter. This was the only article I could find that mentioned a specific instance of a marriage of the dead. In looking back, I regret not questioning Odajima further on the interesting practice.

I met Odajima in a cluttered room on the ninth floor of a brick university building. At the other end of the table in which we sat, a group of scholars were busy translating a book on mountain climbing from Japanese into English. Jars of instant coffee lay between stacks of faded library books. “How do you pronounce Everest?” a European man asked me, the one non-Japanese of the bunch. As we finished up our conversation, Odajima told me about a new death ritual he was beginning to study, kuyo egaku, colorful drawings of the dead doing deeds they may never have gotten to do in life because they were poor. The drawings were brightly colored and beautiful. The deeds were simple things, like trying on fancy clothes, or making tea with an expensive set.

One thought on “Remembering a mysterious Japanese death ritual: “marriage of the dead””

  1. HENRY OTIENO

    Well, it is a funny tradition. Did the two families live happily after the ritual?

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