The centuries-old tradition of ghost marriages is still kept alive at the Seng Wong Beo Temple.

Tanjong Pagar is a melding of big-city metropolis and old-world charm. On weekdays, suits power-walk by some of the oldest temples and clan associations in the country to get to their towering offices. Right where the five-foot-way shophouses and the skyscrapers of the CBD meet sits the Seng Wong Beo Temple—innocuous and impossible to miss all at once.

The temple opens its doors at 8 am and closes for the day at 5.30 pm, like any office in the area. But unseen and unknown to many, behind the gates of the Seng Wong Beo Temple, wedding bells are chiming—the wedding bells of the deceased.

The gates of the Seng Wong Beo Temple—behind which ghost marriages are still occasionally conducted. Image source: Zimin Ho

The district was eerily quiet on a Sunday afternoon—apt, I suppose, for what I was there to find out about. I had awkwardly called ahead to the temple, speaking in fumbling Chinese. There seemed to be no protocol for these things. “Hello, I’d like to ask how you go about marrying ghosts” was a sentence that sounded, at best, inauspiciously callous.

I asked the lady on the phone about whether there was anyone I can speak to about the ceremonies. “There’s no one you can interview,” she said. “But come in for a prayer and take a look, maybe there’ll be someone to answer your questions.”

The temple, established in 1905, is squat, surrounded by a no-frills metal gating around one side and an expanse of wall on the other—nothing of the decorated regality of the many other religious buildings along Temple Street. A walk through the main hall of the temple leaves one flanked by statues of deities—the many that are worshipped by devotees here.

It is fitting that the temple sits in the middle of the city district, as it is mainly dedicated to worshipping the City God, protector of the living city and patron saint of departed souls.

Seng Wong Beo Temple sits in the middle of the Central Business District, towered over by office and apartment buildings. Image source: Zimin Ho

Something sacred, something secret

I had first heard of these ghost marriages when a heritage tour guide brought me around the area, pointing out the Seng Wong Beo Temple as a landmark of great tradition that even most locals are unfamiliar with. The ‘ghost temple’ was what she had called the place.

The temple is allegedly the only one in Singapore that still carries out these ghost marriage ceremonies. It is one of those traditions that hasn’t held up against the passage of time, maybe because it’s deemed too superstitious and, to some, too occult.

When asked about ghost marriages, the temple’s owners shrugged me off, insouciant and a tinge irritated. Yes, they still do the ceremonies, they told me, but they’re more interested in going about their day-to-day business. To keep things sacred, we have to keep them secret.

Ghost marriages typically occur between two departed souls, arranged by the family members of both sides. Sometimes they take place because a family member believes that they have been spoken to by the souls of the departed, asking to be married in the afterlife.

At times, a matchmaker medium is involved. The medium acts as a go-between for the families, listening to the families’ needs and wishes and going about finding a family with a deceased member of marriageable age. Once a match is made, the families work with the medium and the temple to conduct the ceremony.

The origins of ghost marriages are shrouded in mystery, but the first records of the tradition date back to the Han dynasty (206BC–220AD) in China. In the past, when ghost marriages were more commonplace, the ceremony could take place with a deceased groom and a living bride—oftentimes because they were set to be married before the groom passed. The families would then marry the couple through a ghost marriage ceremony for the sake of carrying on their patrilineal line.

The text on the side of the temple’s walls paints its own story: stating the name of the temple, the god it worships (the City God) and its year of establishment. Image source: Zimin Ho

Till death do us wed

There’s nothing borrowed, nothing blue. Ghost marriages are carried out much like prayers and funerals, marked with incense and paper offerings. They happen privately in the temple’s backyard, at a time arranged by the families of the deceased: often early in the mornings, as the living family members have to get to work after—a consideration that seems so jarringly simple and practical in the midst of all the ritual and ceremony.

A priest is called in to officiate and bless the ghost marriage. There is a cleansing of small paper doll effigies, which are used to represent the bride- and groom-to-be. Another larger set of paper effigies is used to represent the wedded couple after their cleansing—it is believed that these larger effigies symbolise the restored health of these departed souls. The effigies are then presented with food offerings.

Both paper dolls are tied together with a red thread, and then led through paper effigies of gates. One of the gates—the Hell Gate—has a matching thread placed under it, as it is believed that the red thread leads the souls of the departed out of the gates of hell and into the paper effigies. After the gates, the priest leads the effigies over paper bridges held up by the family members. Among the paper offerings for the couple are models of paper cars, beds, and a house, all of which are burnt at the end of the ceremony in the temple’s incinerator.

In closing, the priest slips a wedding ring on the finger of the groom’s figurine. The groom’s mother then asks the bride’s spirit if she would like to be married into their family. She tosses two moon blocks into the air, divination tools used in pairs to answer ‘yes’ or ‘no’ questions. Once the moon blocks land on a ‘yes’, with each block falling on a different side, the bride’s mother slips the wedding ring on her daughter’s effigy. The priest gives the couple a blessing, and the deed is done.

All it is, is ritual

The Seng Wong Beo Temple was founded over a hundred years ago, and ghost marriages have been one of the temple’s many rituals since. Ghost marriages are rare these days, but when they do happen, they are shrouded in secrecy. In fact, these ceremonies are not always recognised by orthodox Taoism, as some consider the whole affair to be too occult.

Ask many and they would shudder at the thought of ghost marriages. It is spooky, but, in its own way, joyous.  Weddings are usually more lively affairs, but they are, at the end of the day, just rituals. The ghost marriage rituals are testament to how even in death there can be some joy, and sometimes that joy takes its form in families, often parents, seeing their buried children through one more rite of passage—putting faith in the finding of peace.

I dropped some bills into the temple’s donation box as I left. One of the temple’s workers asked for my family name and I gave it. He dusted the box with some holy trinket and said a prayer too quickly for me to even catch before sending me on my way—and it was just ritual, the business of blessings, simple and practical.

Written by: Zimin Ho

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