Corpse theft is on the rise in rural Shanxi as the old custom of "ghost marriage" has resurfaced in the northern Chinese province.
Southern Shanxi's Hongtong County has reported at least three dozen thefts of female corpses in the last three years, said Lin Xu, deputy director of the county police department, adding that several thefts were reported last February and March.
In ghost marriage rituals, female skeletons are reinforced with steel wires and clothed before they are buried alongside dead bachelors as "ghost brides." Failure to find a burial partner for unmarried male relatives is thought to bring bad luck, according to rural folk belief.
Ghost marriage rituals were practiced throughout China's feudal dynasties and were especially popular in the 10th century during the Song Dynasty.
The government ordered people to cease the practice after the founding of the People's Republic of China in 1949. However, rural Chinese people, who tend to uphold old customs and rituals, have continued the practice using pictures or dummies made of paper or dough.
As wealth has increased, the practice of using real corpses has returned to some rural areas of Shanxi Province, northern Henan Province and Shaanxi Province.
Chang Sixin, deputy director of the China Folk Literature and Art Association, said there are even matchmaking agents and companies to pair dead bachelors with the corpses of women.
In Quting Village, Jing Gouzi bought a corpse to accompany his older brother, who had remained single until death, in burial. "I thought of using a woman made of dough, but the old men in our village insisted only real bodies could prevent misfortune," said the villager.
According to Chinese criminal law, those who steal or defile a corpse are subject to up to three years in prison. The light punishment has failed to deter corpse traffickers seeking profit, Lin said.
A fresh female corpse can fetch up to 100,000 yuan (about 15,600 U.S. dollars), and even a body that has been buried for decades can be sold for around 5,000 yuan.
Corpse theft is difficult to investigate as it is hard to find evidence, Lin said.
Repeated corpse thefts have caused panic in nearby villages. In Shengou Village, families have started to build tombs near their homes, rather than at distant mountain sites. Some affluent families have hired people to watch their family tombs, reinforced the tombs with steel and installed cameras over graves.
Jiang Guolong, who lives in Dongbao Village in the county, discovered his grandmother's body was missing last February. "I was close with my grandmother all my life, and now I cannot find her remains," he said in tears.
Another Hongtong County resident, Guo Qiwen, is looking for his mother's body, which was stolen last March. "I have spent more than 50,000 yuan looking for her remains. It kills my heart not having her back," he said.