The film is set in an unspecified Victorian British village. Victor Van Dort (Johnny Depp), son of a nouveau riche merchant, and Victoria Everglot (Emily Watson), daughter of bankrupt aristocrats, are engaged by their families to marry. When they meet each other for the first time, they like what they see. After the shy, clumsy Victor bungles a wedding rehearsal, he practices his wedding vows in a forest, placing the wedding ring on what looks like a tree branch.
The branch is actually the finger of a deceased bride who is so thrilled by the prospect of marriage that she rises from the grave and spirits Victor to the Land of the Dead. In the surprisingly festive afterlife, Victor learns that his new fiancee's name is Emily (Helena Bonham Carter) and that she was murdered in the woods on the night of her elopement.
Victor, wanting to get back to Victoria, convinces the magical Elder Gutknecht (Michael Gough) to send him and Emily temporarily to the Land of the Living under the pretext of introducing Emily to Victor's parents. Once back home, Victor rushes to see Victoria and confesses his love. Emily feels betrayed and drags Victor back to the Land of the Dead.
Victoria tells her parents that Victor is in trouble, but they believe she has lost her mind and lock her up in her bedroom. She attempts to escape, but to no avail. With Victor gone, Victoria's parents plan to marry her off to a presumably wealthy stranger named Lord Barkis Bittern (Richard E. Grant).
Emily is devastated at first by Victor's deceit, but eventually realizes that Victor and Victoria probably belong together. Victor apologizes to Emily for lying to her.
Victor's recently deceased coachman appears in the afterlife and tells him about Victoria's impending wedding to Lord Barkis. Victor, feeling betrayed, decides to end his own life so he can properly marry Emily. The dead go "upstairs" to the Land of the Living to hold Victor and Emily's wedding in the town church. At first, the living are terrified, but their fear dissipates once they recognize their departed relatives and loved ones.
Victoria hurries to the church and finds Victor about to drink poison. Emily spots Victoria and stops him. Victor and Victoria joyfully reunite, but Lord Barkis interrupts the festivities to remind them that Victoria is now his wife. Lord Barkis attempts to kill Victor with his sword, but Emily takes the blow herself. She then recognizes Lord Barkis as her former fiancé, who murdered her for her dowry and intended the same fate for Victoria. Emily demands he leave. Before he goes, he proposes an insulting mock-toast to Emily. He drinks the poison meant for Victor and dies. The dead gleefully drag him underground while he screams in horror.
Emily sets Victor free of his vow to marry her. Then, she transforms into a swarm of butterflies which fly away.