People around the world embrace ritual as the cornerstone of their culture. Ancestor worship is an example of a ritual that remains popular in death traditions around the world. Changing traditions lead to forgotten customs, but remembering ancestors like our grandparents and great-grandparents is constant for all of us.
Jump ahead to these sections:
- What Is Ancestor Money (Joss Paper)?
- Origins of Ancestor Money
- What’s the Purpose of Ancestor Money?
- Ancestor Money for Hungry Ghosts
- What Places Burn Ancestor Money?
One popular way to worship ancestors is with ancestor money. Using ancestor or spirit money, cultures honor the deceased to bring them good luck in the spirit world. From food offerings to priest rituals and voodoo dance, ancestor worship is embraced around the world.
In this guide, we’ll explore ancestor money. You’ll learn how cultures around the world use it to remember the dead. You may find ways to incorporate the ancient practice into your own family, to honor the ones that leave us behind.
What Is Ancestor Money (Joss Paper)?
Some may call ancestor money spirit or ghost money. Others use terms like heaven money or hell money to describe the spiritual gift. Joss paper is paper made from bamboo or rice cut into squares or triangles. It’s simply made or elaborate and decorated with designs or stamps. Some Joss paper resembles regular currency, but others are gold and shaped like objects.
Many countries burn ancestor money, but one of the most common is China. Chinese death customs include three types of spirit money. Each serves a different purpose:
- Gold money. People burn this for the gods or important deities.
- Silver money. This ancestor money is used for lesser-known gods, ancestors, and close relatives.
- Copper coins. This is burned for relatives or ghosts.
Depending on the circumstances, people burn different kinds of Joss paper at different times. For example, during a birth or wedding, the family honors ancestors with gold money. Some cultures even use paper objects in lieu of money. In Taiwan, families make paper replicas of homes, furniture, and cars, so the deceased can have a happy afterlife.
Origins of Ancestor Money
Ancestor worship is part of a belief that the deceased keep on living in another realm. Family members honor the dead with offerings and rituals that bring their ancestors and the family good luck. The earliest cultures believed that shamans could connect with ancestors and that royal families stay in other realms with gods and goddesses.
Honoring the dead with money predates burning paper. The Greeks and Romans placed coins on the eyes of the dead to pay for their safe passage in a practice named Charon’s Obol. Money has always been important for the deceased in their afterlife. The practice remains today, especially in Asian cultures.
The majority Asian religions of Taoism and Buddhism also play a large part in keeping ancestor rituals alive. The Hungry Ghost festival celebrated by both religions focuses on dedication to ancestors and satisfying their hunger with offerings like ancestor money.
What’s the Purpose of Ancestor Money?
Archeologists found imitation money, including bones and stones in graves as far back as 1000 B.C. Why do people bury the dead with ancestor money? Some scholars trace the practice to a Buddhist tale.
When the Buddhist scholar Xin’s mother died, he couldn’t afford to bury her, so he kept her inside his home—starting the practice of keeping the deceased in the home. Later, he left the body with a monk who burned paper money and straw to cover the smell. The monk told officials that the money would bring the deceased good luck in the afterlife.
Today, burning spirit or Joss money for ancestors is a way to show respect, fulfill duties, and guarantee good luck to the spirit in the afterlife. The family believes that the money floats up to heaven for the spirit to use in that realm.
Burning ancestor money also aids the deceased into a better next life. Family members burn large amounts of money, so the deceased can use it to pay down their debt of bad deeds from their lifetime. Paying off the karmic debts leads to a more favorable incarnation. If a family member died unexpectedly or was very young, they didn’t have a chance to prove themselves through good deeds. With such a death, it’s up to the family members to burn spirit money so they can pass into the next lifetime or realm safely.
Ancestor Money for Hungry Ghosts
There are many occasions when to burn ancestor money. During Chinese funerals, the family burns Joss paper before they lower the deceased into the ground. Burning ancestor money is especially important during the Hungry Ghost Festival. Countries like China, Vietnam, and Singapore celebrate the return of their ancestors to the earth side.
The deceased roam over the earth, looking for their relatives and food. Unless the ghosts are treated well with rituals and offerings, they will misfortune their relatives and friends. During the Hungry Ghost festival, you’ll find people burning ancestor money outside of businesses and homes.
Burning money is just one way to show respect for the deceased. Food offerings like rice and fruit are also common. Some cities host celebrations only for the ghosts or set empty tables and chairs.
What Places Burn Ancestor Money?
The majority of Asian countries burn ancestor money. It’s common to find places to burn Joss paper outside of temples or businesses. Below are the most common places you’ll find ancient practices like burning ancestor money.
Burning ancestor money has been popular in China for thousands of years. It’s essential for honoring the deceased and also to help keep them happy. You’ll find shrines and incense close to homes and temples. Thousands of years ago, people left paper money inside tombs for the deceased to reach the afterlife easily.
It’s especially important to burn joss paper during holidays like the Hungry Ghost festival mentioned above or the Qingming Festival. The Qingming festival or tomb sweeping day is a common way to remember the deceased by cleaning the ancestral tomb and making offerings. Traditionally, the Chinese burn incense or joss paper but recently—due to the environmental concerns of burning—leaving flowers on the tomb has become a popular tradition.
Celebrating ancestors with large dinners, tomb cleanings, and offerings is ingrained in the Chinese culture. It’s not surprising that the practice spread to other Asian countries.
In Taiwan alone, the Joss paper industry made over four hundred million dollars in 2014. The majority of Taiwanese people are Han Chinese and contribute to the funeral customs in the region.
Aside from burning money, families burn paper homes, dolls, and cars at funerals and special occasions.
The majority of Vietnamese people place a special significance on honoring ancestors. Many people have ancestral altars in their homes when they burn incense and flowers and give food offerings. There are special holidays in Vietnam to honor ancestors like the Vietnamese New Year or Tet Festival. Family members clean ancestral graves and make offerings.
Burning Joss paper or ancient money is important in the temple. Older generations pass down these traditions to the younger people who honor them. In Vietnam, people call Joss paper heaven money, as they believe it floats up to heaven for the deceased to use it as spirit currency. The Vietnamese also use real money on their home altars for good fortune.
One of the largest communities of Chinese people is in Singapore. Over 75 percent of the population is Chinese so there are many ancestral traditions passed from mainland China over to Singapore.
Using rituals like burning ancestor money, the deceased’s family helps to transform the hungry ghost's spirit into a satisfied ancestor. In turn, the ancestor provides good luck to the family and descendants. The family burns the paper slowly, so the deceased receives all of the money in the afterlife. This is done during the funeral, next to the coffin, and on special celebrations.
Planning for Death
We can all learn lessons from the Asian practice of burning ancestor money. Instead of fearing death, these cultures are prepared for it. There’s also hope that even after death, the deceased lives life.
There are many ways to incorporate death planning into your family. Begin the conversation with this conversation starter kit. It’s an easy way to share your death wishes with family and hear out theirs.
- Liu, Gloria. “Why Chinese Burn Paper on Tomb-Sweeping Day.” The Beijinger. 3 April 2020, thebeijinger.com
- “Joss Paper.” One World Nations Online, Nationsonline.org
- Adair et al., “Hell Money.” University of California, Irvine, anthropology.uci.edu
- “The People of Singapore.” visitsingapore.org