Gifts to Hell

Death, Gifts for the Family

When you die, don't just stand there waiting to be judged. Invest in a nice property, make some calls and bribe your way into a higher circle of hell. According to ancestor-worship traditions across most of East Asia, the dead can really make a go of life in the underworld with the help of a little cash, also known as ghost money, joss paper or hell money.

The underworld economy gets a major cash infusion on April 5th this year; it's Tombsweeping Day, when many in China honor their dead by burning joss paper gifts. (Incineration is considered a means of delivery.)

Usually issued by a fictitious "Hell Bank," the flammable bills are printed in denominations from 100 to 500,000,000 and widely available for purchase in the land of the living. So are hell travelers' checks, credit cards and gold ingots, all made from the same special burning paper. For those who find gifts of money crass, there are also luxury goods made to send to the spirit world, from paper Wi-Fi routers to race cars. In China, a joss paper iPad costs about 20 yuan (US$3.26) among the living. 

More than 1,000 metric tons of joss paper are burned annually in China, according to the China Consumers' Association. The yearly total value of those offerings in the material world exceeds 10 billion yuan (about US$1.6 billion), but sacrifants see it as an investment: a generous installment of hell money, along with firecrackers and fireworks, can win ancestral benevolence and even attract attention from the God of Wealth, whose touch turns stones to gold. This month in Shenzhen, one company sent its employees around to the back of the office building to burn several tons of hell money for luck in business. 

On festivals like the Tombsweeping Day, the Lunar New Year, and the God of Wealth's birthday, clouds of smoke hang over temples for days. And as the average Chinese grows richer, temple authorities across China are noticing a trend: more people are buying and burning greater quantities of joss paper and incense. The resulting clouds of ash flakes have become a real problem in cities like Shenzhen, Beijing and Shanghai, where the air quality index (AQI) regularly reads between 150 and 300 (the World Health Organization recommends a safe limit of 25). 

In Hong Kong, the Environmental Protection Department published official guidelines for joss-paper burning, hoping to reduce air pollution. And in the name of no god but clean air, religious groups are asking the worshipful to stop sending so much stuff to the underworld. Last year, an irritated spokesperson for Beijing's Lama Temple called the large-scale burning of joss "irrational," according to the China Daily, and pointed out that temple staff has to dispose of multiple truckloads of ash every day during the Lunar New Year celebrations. 

Air pollution is the fourth leading cause of death in China. Of course, the nation's reliance on coal, not joss paper, is what really boosts China into position as the world's largest emitter of carbon dioxide, but incense-based smog doesn't help. Two recent studies have linked incense smoke to lung damage and upper respiratory tract cancer among Singaporeans, (as well as among families in the United Arab Emirates, where 94% of households burn incense indoors), making spirit money a better way to join your ancestors than to honor them.


Photos by Giulia Marchi.