Bodysnatchers in China

In Scotland during the early 1800s, there was a problem with ‘Bodysnatchers‘ or, as they were also called, ‘Resurrection Men’.  These people would remove recently buried corpses from graves by night, and sell them to surgeons at the medical schools in Edinburgh and Aberdeen for use in anatomy lectures. Resurrection-Men The need for cadavers was so great that two infamous chaps called Burke & Hare stopped merely robbing graves and started killing people in order to meet the demand. They were eventually caught and tried. Burke was excecuted in front of a crowd of 25,000 and his body was sent to be anatomised!  The case received a huge amount of publicity; Sir Walter Scott mentions it in one of his novels, and the author Robert Louis Stevenson wrote a short story inspired by it.

Here in China there has been a spate of ‘bodysnatching’ recently,  but for very different reasons to those in Georgian Scotland.

In China approximately 9 million bodies are interred in graves every year, and these huge numbers are now beginning to use up land available for agriculture and other purposes.


Being buried has always been of great cultural and religious significance in China.  In rural areas many people purchase their own coffins and grave clothes years in advance, and keep them in their homes ready for the day they will be needed.

Coffin stored in classroom of rural primary school.

Coffin stored in classroom of rural primary school.

89yr old Hunan woman has her coffin ready in her kitchen.

89yr old Hunan woman has her coffin ready in her kitchen.

Because it had become obvious that the country could not sustain this volume of land being used for graveyards, the powers-that-be have tried, right from the formation of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, to persuade the population to accept cremation as an alternative.

Indeed Mao Zedong himself committed to being cremated – in writing, way back in 1956 – however when he did eventually die, his followers completely ignored his wishes and had him embalmed and put on display, but that’s another story.

Last year in Henan province, local government caused consternation and outrage by flattening some 400,00 graves to make more agricultural land available.  Early this year, Anhui province in eastern China passed a local law making cremation compulsory after 1st June.  As a result six elderly people committed suicide in May so that they could be buried before the new law took effect. A fairly drastic un-intended consequence of the legislation.  But that was merely the start of things…

To ensure the policy was working, a government quota for the number of cremations was set  for each area – and this is where the bodysnatching comes in.  Local officials have been buying corpses from bodysnatchers and having them cremated in order to meet their target requirements!  Bodies have been snatched from other provinces and brought in to meet the demand.

But that is not all. There is another ancient reason for  bodysnatching in China.                    In two words:  Ghost Wives (cue spooky music..)  This is when a dead female body is ‘married’ to a man who may be alive, but may have pre-deceased her.                                        Despite the best efforts of the Chinese Communist Party government since 1949, the tradition of ‘Ghost Marriages has never died out completely.  In fact Ghost Marriages are illegal and carry a penalty of 3 years imprisonment. In 2007 ten men were sentenced for having sold female corpses for these rituals, and one man (shades of Burke & Hare) killed no fewer than 16 women in order to sell their bodies!

Despite its illegality, ancient beliefs die hard (excuse the pun).  The idea that a man who never marries and is buried alone will bring bad luck to his family for generations to come is a powerful incentive to break the law.   So a family may consider buying the corpse of a recently deceased woman (if the corpse is rotting it won’t do) and conducting a marriage ceremony before interring her with the dead bachelor to avoid bad luck, and they hope that the authorities will not find out.Ghost wife

Furthermore, it was always the way that a younger son could not marry until his older brother had been married. Sometimes, in order to make the marriage possible, the older bachelor brother will have a ‘Ghost Marriage’ with a corpse so that his younger brother is able to marry.

I do  hope you have been paying attention and got to grips with the complexities of marrying a cadaver – these things are never straightforward.

There is an old English expression that comes to mind:    ‘There’s nowt so queer as folk’

About herschelian

Started my 60s by moving to China with my DH. Surprised to find I am still here in Beijing eight years later - still finding it an adventure!
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7 Responses to Bodysnatchers in China

  1. Sheila Taylor says:

    Lordy Mrs M that is really gruesome! Xx

  2. Behind the Story says:

    That old English saying certainly fits this situation. The ghost marriages are truly bizarre. People will go to such extreme lengths to fulfill an ancient custom.

    In 1983 we visited Xiamen and Gulangyu to visit my husband’s hometown and also to pay our respects at his grandparents’ graves. His grandmother, who died during WWII (the Second Sino-Japanese War), had been buried in a wartime cemetery on Gulangyu. By 1983 that cemetery had become a park. We weren’t able to find out what happened to her body, but we thought it might have been dug up and cremated. On that same trip, his cousin found is own mother’s ashes in a temple annex in Xiamen.

  3. Jennie Skidmore says:

    Fascinating and gruesome- great post! Xxx


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  5. Goodness, this is the stuff of horror films! Fascinating and macabre, every part of it, thank you for sharing!

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  7. macjam47 says:

    Oh my gosh, how horrible.

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