Residence: Los Angeles, California
Date of Performance/Collection: 4/16/2013
Primary Language: English
Other Language(s): Chinese
Informant: “When someone passes away you burn money so that they can spend it in the afterlife. My grandma recently passed, so my mom burned money on specific days. It happens three times I think, it’s very structured. That way, they can use it in the afterlife.”
Me: “Is it real money?”
Informant: “I don’t think so… I’m pretty sure it’s paper with money numbers written on it. It looks like old money. But basically they believe that the spirits can still walk the earth and influence people and have an impact on us, so you want them to be happy. It’s a respect thing. That way you can ask them for favors later. I know they also burn mini fake wooden TVs.”
Analysis: Upon hearing the story from my informant, the first thing that came to mind was the ancient Greek tradition of putting a coin underneath the tongue of a person so they could be ferried over the River in their journey to the underworld.
This fake money is actually called “Joss Paper”, and resembles money used in ancient times by the Emperor. It is usually made of bamboo paper or rice paper. Some of it is wrapped up like gold bars, and it is commonly burned with incense. In more modern folklore, it is believed that this money will go into a bank account that the deceased can access in heaven.
Often, the money must be folded before it is burnt. This is in order to distinguish it from regular money, for burning regular money is considered unlucky in most countries in Asia. The origin of this practice comes from regional folklore in China, and may have evolved from leaving food and incense at the Buddhist altars. However, Buddhism typically discourages burning money as they believe to deceased travels to the “Pure Land”, where there is no need for material things.