Marrying Your Deceased Wife's Sister


We recently saw the Icelandic movie "The Sea" (directed by Baltasar Kormakur).  This is quite a soap opera set in a remote fishing village in Iceland where the bleak surroundings help explain the insanity that ensues.  What is revealed is that the family patriarch married his deceased wife's sister.  Contributing to this family's dysfunction are the dark secrets from the past involving the circumstances in which the children's aunt became their step-mother. 

I don't want to give away too much of the movie (I recommend you watch it) but it did spur the debate whether it is ever appropriate for a man to marry his deceased wife's sister.  On the one hand, it would seem to be a bad idea given that the new relationship will bring into question the man's and sister-in-law's feelings for each other while the wife was alive.  On the other hand, it could be argued that it would be a good thing given that the aunt probably has a relationship with the children (if there are children) that can more naturally transform into a maternal one (compared to a step-mother who starts out as a complete stranger to the children).

So what are the cultural norms regarding this practice of marrying sister-in-laws?  Certainly it changes from culture to culture.  In many African cultures, it is expected that the younger sister "replace" her deceased older sister in the event of her untimely death.  Britain actually outlawed marrying of deceased wife's sisters back in 1835 (the Anglican Church considered the practice to be incestuous since when you marry, you become of one flesh, so your spouse's sister becomes your own sister as well). This law was repealed in 1907.  In some parts of the world, it is simply a practical issue.  In remote regions, there may be few marriageable women, and marrying the sister-in-law may be the most convenient option given that she probably helped with the nursing of her dying sister and taking care of the children.

However, are there clear cultural norms for modern society, or even more specifically, modern American society?  To answer this question, I searched the web to see if there had been any studies on the subject.  Even though I was able to find quite a number of mostly theological writings, I couldn't find a poll that measured what people's attitudes were.  I was intrigued whether my personal views on this subject were out of step with what most people think.

So what do you think?  Is this cultural taboo or not?  Do you think your views are congruent with the rest of modern society?  Well, I conducted an informal poll among my acquaintances using SurveyMonkey (I've posted a snapshot of the results below).

If I had the time and resources, I would conduct a real scientific poll.  Here are some other questions I'd ask:

 


Question: When is it appropriate for a widower to marry his deceased wife's sister?

Response Percent Total
Anytime after his wife's death 19.6% 10
Only after at least one year of his wife's death 31.4% 16
Only after at least five years of his wife's death 5.9% 3
Only after at least ten years of his wife's death 3.9% 2
This is never appropriate 39.2% 20
  Total Respondents 51

How does gender affect the answers?
Percentage of men (25 respondents) who say this is never appropriate: 24%
Percentage of women (26 respondents) who say this is never appropriate: 53.8%

How does marital status affect the answers?
Percentage of single people (22 respondents) who say this is never appropriate: 36.4%
Percentage of married people (28 respondents) who say this is never appropriate: 42.9%

How does having a same-sex sibling affect the answer? (This could make the question less hypothetical)
Percentage of women with no sisters (5 respondents) who say this is never appropriate: 40%
Percentage of women with sisters (21 respondents) who say this is never appropriate: 57.1%
Percentage of men with no brothers (10 respondents) who say this is never appropriate: 30%
Percentage of men with brothers (15 respondents) who say this is never appropriate: 20%

Results as of 6/4/2003 13:10 PDT

2003 Hugh Molotsi