Hell-thy, Wealthy, and Dead


The expression “you can’t take it with you” apparently dates back to the first half of the nineteenth century, but the idea is older than that. Not all cultures have believed this, however. We know that the tombs of wealthy Egyptians were full of material items, as well as pictures of others.

The preservation of the body was also important, and a sarcophagus could have a rendering of the occupant’s face.

Although these things remained in the tomb, versions of them would presumably enter into the afterlife with the dead person. This presumably means that rich people would remain rich after they died, with no first becoming last and last first involved here. The Greek tradition of burying people with coins on their eyes is well-known, although these weren’t for the people themselves, but to pay Charon to ferry them across the River Acheron.

Otherwise, I guess their spirit would just remain on the bank forever. I’m not sure what Charon does with the money is ever addressed. Most gods seemed to prefer offerings of food, after all. What I’ve particularly been trying to look into recently, however, is how followers of Chinese folk religion had money to burn.

In English, the banknotes burned for loved ones in the afterlife were often known as hell money, the typical origin given for this name being that, when the Chinese learned about Hell from missionaries, they just took the name to mean the afterlife in general rather than just the bad part. But then, doesn’t the name come from the Norse underworld that was just the dwelling place of those who died outside battle? Sometimes they’re called heaven notes instead. Hey, you’ve heard of cryptocurrency, so get ready for crypt currency. Hell notes are a form of joss paper, a sort of paper made from bamboo that was made into various forms and ritually burned. The forms were often those of material goods, and more recently these have even included cars, electronics, and credit cards.

I’ve read that, in 2006, the Ministry of Civil Affairs banned the burning of vulgar items, like mistresses and Viagra. It would have to suck if you became a ghost and still couldn’t get a boner. The practice is thought to date back as far as 1000 BC, although the bank notes in particular are a more recent development. China had paper money before most of the world, but it seems to have been a while before they developed a special currency for the dead. Sometimes modeled on real bills, I’ve seen descriptions indicating that the Jade Emperor and the Eight Immortals are often on them, and even their signature of the Emperor and Yanluo (the Chinese version of Yama) given as representatives as the Bank of Hell or Limbo.

I wouldn’t think the gods would be too happy about humans forging their signatures, but I can’t say I’ve ever met any of them and asked them about it. I understand that a lot of the denominations are in dollars rather than Chinese currency, as they were considered more universal at the time.

Dead loved ones can spend this money or use it to bribe officials to get a better deal. It sounds like this concept of the afterlife isn’t all that different from everyday life. It does kind of seem like cheating that a paper representation of something can turn into something real, but I’m not sure that money or objects having spirit forms is that much stranger than humans having them. Besides, making cars and women out of paper can’t be easy. I’ve heard that there was an X-Files episode involving hell money, but I haven’t seen it. I have, however, read several Tom Holt books involving the Bank of the Dead, run by a generally friendly guy named Jackie Dao and located in a void, and inspired by the hell money concept.

This entry was posted in African, Authors, Buddhism, Chinese, Christianity, Egyptian, Greek Mythology, Mythology, Norse, Religion, Taoism, Tom Holt and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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