Hell Bank Notes
September 7, 2002 8:57 PM   Subscribe

Hell Bank Notes are a chinese funeral custom of burning paper money in specialized cemetary ovens for use in the afterlife (Some even feature US Presidents JFK and LBJ). I have heard of instances where entire paper houses or cars are burned in tribute. Find out more about contemporary chinese funeral practices, such as funerary music like Mei Hua Ts'ao (Plum Blossoms) [3 meg mp3] and personal insightful interviews. What unique funeral practices have you witnessed or participated in?
posted by Stan Chin (31 comments total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
For example, the practice of "One for my dead homies" otherwise known as 40oz tipping.
posted by Stan Chin at 9:25 PM on September 7, 2002

I remember after my Mom died, I went with my friend Tim for dinner at his Aunt's house. His family is Taiwanese. Before I crossed the threshold, I was required to give her a dollar, which she placed in an envelope.

A week later, she won the lottery.

Just kidding. But I think it had something to do with bribing the spirit of the dead not to enter the house.
posted by Kafkaesque at 9:26 PM on September 7, 2002

The bank notes featured on the link are too intricately designed. Especially with the introduction of English words, the ones you see there are mainly for the Chinese community outside of China, or for the well-to-do. In the poorer, rural areas of the mainland, people generally burn at graves stacks of crude, cheap, lightweight paper with simple markings and patterns symbolising money. Of course, this is a very ancient tradition and is no longer practiced regularly in modern, urban China, although it has become somewhat of a cultural novelty.
posted by dai at 9:35 PM on September 7, 2002

When my friends mother died all of her money and possessions were disposed of. Clothes and stuff went to good will, I think most of her money was donated to cancer research but a token amount was kept for the service as well. Each person who attended received a loonie or two (Canadian dollar coin) with the suggestion that it be spent on something sweet.
posted by substrate at 9:38 PM on September 7, 2002

In the poorer, rural areas of the mainland, people generally burn at graves stacks of crude, cheap, lightweight paper with simple markings and patterns symbolising money

Plain, cheap paper money was used at the funeral I attended a few years ago. From what I understand its still practiced widely among traditionalist Chinese-American families. I may be wrong however.
posted by Stan Chin at 9:38 PM on September 7, 2002

At a Jewish funeral, the mourners all put a symbolic shovelfull of soil into the grave at the end. I've done this twice now. I can recall the sound of earth on a coffin lid now. You have to say Kaddish, which is a prayer of beautiful sentiment, but I personally will be glad not to do that again for a while.

The family of the deceased rend their clothing. In practise, this means the rabbi cuts your shirt with scissors. And if you're going to mourn properly, you don't change or shave for a week.

Coffins are plain pine. We are equal in death, no fancy stuff for us. And like Muslims, we bury as soon as possible. It's disrespectful to delay burial.

Wash your hands when you leave the cemetery - you need to be purified. Bodies are unclean. (When my great-uncle Sid died, he had to be kept behind a barrier in the , because the rabbi was a Cohen, and Cohens can't be in the same room as a corpse).

You might notice in the Orthodox section at least, the piles of pebbles at each grave. You leave a pebble when you visit.

Jews sit shiva, or ritual mourning at home while visitors attend to bereaved, for seven days after the death. I live in New Zealand, and interestingly, Maori, who are the indigenes of New Zealand, do something pretty similar, called a tangihanga, except at a tangi, the body lies in state for several days, and burial comes at the end.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 9:42 PM on September 7, 2002

Also, Chinese Commemorative Portraits (which also includes fantastic links to more information on the sidebar) which were hand painted portraits of the deceased, were usually pre-made headless portraits with the heads painted in later. In modern practice though, it has been replaced with a photograph of the deceased, which is carried by the eldest son/important male in during the procession.

For those who haven't seen it, here is a very interesting Slashdot thread concerning an online funeral in the MMORPG Dark Age of Camelot. If anyone also has any internet funeral stories, I'm very interested.

And i_am_joe's_spleen, that was very intriguing. Thank you.
posted by Stan Chin at 9:56 PM on September 7, 2002

Stan, it is... for my grandfather's funeral in Taiwan, I remember burning bank notes, but they weren't as detailed. Instead, we folded paper with gold-coloured foil in a certain way, then burned it.
posted by hobbes at 10:01 PM on September 7, 2002

Each person who attended received a loonie or two (Canadian dollar coin) with the suggestion that it be spent on something sweet.

What a beautiful idea, I love this.

That being said, the strangest (and most touching) thing I've ever experienced that was funeral-related was when the mother of a friend died. She'd known in advance that she was dying, so she'd baked most of the food for her funeral reception herself and frozen it. It was weird to be standing around in her house, eating cookies that she'd baked, just after attending her funeral, but it also gave a concrete reminder of the sort of person she was, and made you feel like she was there. It was very fitting. I've known of many people who put a certain amount of money aside to pay for a round of drinks at their local pub for their friends to raise a toast to them after they'd gone. I like that idea too.
posted by biscotti at 10:13 PM on September 7, 2002

With the air pollution so bad in Taiwan, I hope at least some people are praying for clean air and healthy lungs as they burn tons of paper. The irony is the only amusing thing about it.
posted by Poagao at 10:14 PM on September 7, 2002

Even in modernised urban settings like Singapore, the practice is still widespread especially during the hungry ghost festival as these people "feel that these offerings reach the ghosts and help them live comfortably in their world".
posted by murmur at 10:28 PM on September 7, 2002

What a great thread. For myself, I'd love a sky burial, but I'll settle for being cremated once anything of use has been taken for transplants, anatomy classes, etc."
posted by sennoma at 11:04 PM on September 7, 2002

Sennoma, I have never heard of the sky burial, but... wow. Unfortunately, I don't share your enthusiasm to be... geez. *shudders* I'm not even sure if I could watch that. That's gotta be the best one I've heard so far.
posted by Stan Chin at 11:16 PM on September 7, 2002

Parsees in India do "sky burials" too. The place where the dead are laid out is called "The Towers of Silence". Sadly, I hear the vultures are becoming rare near Mumbai, and so it's taking too long for the corpses to be eaten.

(Parsees are the last remnant of Zoroastrians, and I find them fascinating. I don't suppose there are any Parsi MeFites, are there?)
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 11:25 PM on September 7, 2002

Not to go off an too much of a tangent here, but I've never been to a funeral. And it's rather interesting to think about what other things I've never experienced. It's also a bit of a shocker to realise that it's been quite some time now since the last time I've cried. I don't really know why I thought of that.

Back to the topic, I recall reading about Parsi funeral rites in Rohinton Mistry's Such A Long Journey. Or was it A Fine Balance? How fascinating! Personally I'd think that's rather dishonouring towards the body of the deceased.
posted by dai at 11:47 PM on September 7, 2002

Americans of Irish descent, and Irish-Americans (those naturalized) generally do practice the ritual of putting away a bit of money to buy the last round, or at least someone in the immediate family of the deceased buys the round. Where I am from, they do, anyway.
My family has a tradition of having that drink in the presence of the body. Many families I know do also- either at the parlor, or in certain cases, secreting the body out of the parlor (!?). Often times that only happens when the parlor is family owned. Health code violations abound... I myself have never done that, or even seen that, although I have passed the bottle in the parlor with family.
Incidentally, anyone know where the idea of having males' coffins open at half-casket and females' at full-casket comes from? I was told by a cousin (who is a funeral director) that this is the way it is done, but I never found out why.
posted by oflinkey at 12:05 AM on September 8, 2002

That's the whole point, dai - if Parsis think like Jews do, and I think they do, the idea is precisely NOT to honour the body. In death all are equal. Also, the body is just a dead body. It's not a person any more, it's where a person used to be. If you read Monier-Willam's account, you'll read:

"We form a united body in life, and we are united in death. Even our leader, Sir Jametjee, likes to feel that when he dies he will be reduced to perfect equality with the poorest and humblest of the Parsi community"

There's an interesting source text here.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 12:10 AM on September 8, 2002

Here's a good article about the declining vulture population at the Towers of Silence.
posted by homunculus at 12:27 AM on September 8, 2002

i was in chinatown in san francisco and witnessed a funeral procession, but i'm not sure what they were doing. a small band marched and played, followed by a convertible with a large portrait of the deceased propped up in the back seat and surrounded by flowers. another convertible followed with what i assume was the man's family and they were throwing handfuls of small white sheets of paper out into the streets. the rest of the cars in the procession were following suit. i picked up one of the pieces of paper and there was nothing on it but a small pattern of what looked like pin pricks. does anyone know what the papers were for or signified?
posted by centrs at 12:40 AM on September 8, 2002

I have friends who collect the cheap Hell money and I know fascimiles of dollar bills with the faces of Lyndon Johnson, John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. on them are common on the walls of black-owned restaurants in inner cities and the south--I'm thinking of Franglor's Creole Cafe here in Seattle--but the combination of hell money with pictures of JFK and LBJ is a new one to me. I've always liked the phrase hungry ghosts. Now there's a great band name. I hope the vultures aren't dying from something like mad Parsi disease.
posted by y2karl at 2:50 AM on September 8, 2002

From the first link:The word Hell was introduced to China, my friend's parents told me, by Christian missionaries who claimed that non-converted Chinese folks were all "going to Hell" when they died -- and the Chinese, thinking "Hell" was the proper English term for the afterlife, adopted the word.

Is that true? That sounds like an old wives tale or a myth of some kind. Because there are combinations of Chinese characters for 'heaven' and 'hell', why would Americans of Chinese descent use 'hell' as bank note name?
posted by hama7 at 3:27 AM on September 8, 2002

When I was in China, we went to a memorial for my great grandparents, or something. Not sure of the exact relationship.

My family was rather well to do as far as Chinese people went, and there was this elaborate offering of "Hell stuff" for the memorial.

There was of course the paper money, and lots of it. But we also had hell furniture, hell televisions, hell stereos, a hell HOUSE, and get this: a hell GAMEBOY. I shit you not. A little screen, joy stick, and two buttons. It was all papier mache, but it was pretty well made. The house was like 1/2 scale, and every thing was arranged inside.

It was pretty ... disturbing.

Then we burned it all.

Then my grand parents weeped over the grave for an hour.

Then we went out to eat at a fancy restaurant.
posted by aznblader at 3:57 AM on September 8, 2002

I saw a nifty book full of the kinds of things aznblader talks about at the SFMoMA store. It's called Souvenirs from Hell and is part of a series of Street Design Files books from Japan. Lousy pictures from inside here. A description of this book and many others in the series are at the Giant Robot store, but the page takes forever to load.
posted by dmo at 6:27 AM on September 8, 2002

When my father died, my grandparents took photos of him in his casket at the funeral home. A few were of my grandfather (a WWII vet) saluting the casket (Dad served in the Army in Germany during Viet Nam, but wasn't a career man.) At first, I was horrified--why are they taking pictures of their dead son? And saluting him? And taking more pictures?

Later, after speaking with friends, it seems as though photos of the deceased are a common thing for folks of a certain age--lots of photos of deceased grandparents were mentioned, but not so much of younger folks, kids etc. Also, it seemed as though from the people I spoke with, it was mostly open casket pictures; if it was a closed casket funeral, no one took pictures.

When they developed the photos, my grandmother sent copies to my mom. Mom didn't know what to do--they're not ones you'd put in a frame on the mantle. Or heck, even in a photo album. So she has them in the box that his ashes came in (we spread his ashes in his favorite fishing spot in Wisconsin, so we bought no urn) along with a few other items from the funeral. She & I are leery to discard any of it, as we don't know the origins or reasons behind snapshots of the dead. Better to err on the side of caution & keep them in a closet.
posted by macadamiaranch at 7:18 AM on September 8, 2002

on the memorial side, I've always been fascinated by memorial hair lockets, and I've been to (way way too many) very elaborate memorial services for friends dead from AIDS...often with djs and professional lighting, or production numbers...

macademia--It could be because they didn't have albums and shoeboxes worth of photos of their lives--our grandparents didn't have their lives chronicled with photos like we did.
posted by amberglow at 7:27 AM on September 8, 2002

So after a good couple of hours of vainly searching for Hell objects, I finally typed in "Paper Offerings" in google and bingo was his name-o.

Here's a good gallery of Paper Offerings.

It looks like even in the afterlife we can't get away from our cell phones and pagers. Some of them are very intricate. Of course these make me wonder if it'd do any good in the afterlife at all.

why would Americans of Chinese descent use 'hell' as bank note name?

hama7, to tell you the honest truth, Chinese-American culture is really fucking confusing. We're constantly torn between steadfast tradition while some other rules are relaxed. Also, many chinese customs have changed into nearly unrecognizable remnants of their true roots when practiced in America, most due to the merging of traditions with American culture. I would almost suppose that since Heaven/Hell really doesn't make a difference to us anyway, it's all the same afterlife, we're comfortable with using Hell. Although recently as we've gotten more aware many people have used 'Heaven' instead, but hell still sticks around.

And also I have to add in that the post-feast at a fancy restaurant is pretty much a given in any Chinese event. Wish there was more drinking like the Irish though.
posted by Stan Chin at 11:00 AM on September 8, 2002

y2karl: I've always liked the phrase hungry ghosts. Now there's a great band name.

Agreed. There's a dude here in Detroit who thinks so too. (I don't know him or anything, he just advertises on local cable TV a lot.)
posted by britain at 11:33 AM on September 8, 2002

"It is customary for blood relatives and daughters-in-law to wail and cry during mourning as a sign of respect and loyalty to the deceased. Wailing is particularly loud if the deceased has left a large fortune."
posted by aznblader at 2:30 PM on September 8, 2002

I bet that doesn't help at all.

Actually it does. Thanks a lot, stan and kalessin. It has also inspired me to do some more snooping around too.
posted by hama7 at 7:16 PM on September 8, 2002

Stan, searching for the term "joss paper" also tends to bring up some of the hell money and related items. I'd like to hear more about them, actually -- I've been selling some of it to folks who find it interesting, but I always wonder if doing so is being horrendously disrespectful or something. I do make a point, on the web site, of asking that people treat it with respect since it is part of some people's religious tradition.
posted by litlnemo at 5:04 AM on September 9, 2002

Chinese-American traditions are indeed an odd bastardization of traditional and Western beliefs, even for those who were native-born (ie my father and my aunt). When my uncle died, there was a sheaf of joss paper (Hell money, in my family, was burned only at the Hungry Ghosts festival) and incense burning out in front of the house. Traditional Chinese candy was passed out at the funeral to everybody, to take the edge off such a bitter occasion (I'm surprised not more cultures have a tradition like that). But a chaplain presided over the funeral, and my relatives actually tried to stop my aunt from doing the ritual keening, probably because they figured it would do more harm than good in the end.

Which is an interesting contrast to a story my grandmother told me about when her grandfather died, she and her siblings saw everybody crying and wailing around them, and started crying and wailing too, thus prompting all the adults at the funeral to say, "Oh, those poor children, they must really miss their grandfather."

Thank you for such an interesting thread, Stan, and everybody for all their responses.
posted by calistasm at 5:09 PM on September 9, 2002

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