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Hell money: continued

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Murder Ballads
Secret London

All you need for a healthy sex life after death

Searching for paper replicas of consumer goods in San Francisco, I found nothing more exotic than the beer, jewellery and electronic goods shown here. But these just scratch the surface of what a dead loved one can receive.
         At the luxury end of the market, people also burn paper replicas of gold and platinum credit cards, travellers' cheques, laptop computers, passports, airline tickets, luxury villas with manicured gardens, Mercedes limousines (some complete with a liveried chauffeur), sub-zero refrigerators and even domestic servants.
         Often, these elaborate paper models are commissioned specially to reflect not only the family's wealth but also the dead individual's own interests and style.
         The British Museum's Living and Dying exhibition has a particularly nice example in this rather beautiful paper motorcycle from Malaysia. The same show has photographs of a Penang family burning a life-size paper Mercedes in order to deliver it to one of their own dead relatives.
         China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore, Vietnam and Malaysia all have specialist Gods Material Shops, where a wide range of paper replicas and Hell notes can be bought by grieving relatives. Some are keen to ensure the deceased enjoys not only the normal consumer comforts, but a healthy sex life too.
         In April 2006, China Daily reported that Dou Yupei, deputy secretary at the Ministry of Civil Affairs, had introduced fines for anyone found burning "vulgar" items at graveside. Among the examples he complained of were paper models of condoms, Viagra tablets and the bar girls hired to pamper men at expensive nightclubs.
         Some families had even been found burning paper dolls representing the "Supergirls" made famous by China's version of America's Got Talent. (10)
         "Not only is [this custom] mired in feudal superstition, but it just appears low and vulgar," Dou said. He asked people to make their tributes online instead. (11)
         Not that it did him much good. A year later, the Nanjing Morning News was condemning the sales of paper Viagra tablets all over again. "The people who make this stuff are definitely lacking in taste and civilisation," it quoted one reader as saying. (12)
         Mao tried to wipe out the custom of burning paper offerings in graveyards too, but even he never quite succeeded in doing so. Tomb Sweeping Day, the annual festival when Chinese families tend to their loved ones' graves, was banned under communism, but reinstated as a public holiday in 2008.
         That's still the day when a lot of Hell notes get burned today. Some families stack them in loose piles on the grave before setting a match to them, while others fold them into intricate patterns to distinguish the Hell notes from real cash. A third group burn Hell notes alongside their paper replica gifts, believing the money will distract evil spirits who would otherwise intercept the burned gifts for themselves. (13, 14)
         For those unable to travel to their own family graves on Tomb Sweeping Day, a convenient patch of waste ground is pressed into service instead. "In the evening, the street corners all over town will light up as people make small fires to burn the Hell money and things to send their ancestors," Joann Pittman, an American teacher living in Beijing, reports. (15)
         At funerals, it's also acceptable to place Hell notes intact in the loved one's coffin, or simply to release them into the wind so they'll waft to the afterlife that way. Some families will distribute Hell notes to mourners as they arrive for just this purpose. (16)

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