Joss Paper and the Return of the Dead
Joss paper is also called incense papers, and is sheets of thin paper made from bamboo fibers.
This paper is made by tying together strips of bamboo fiber until they become long strips of
paper Jin Paper. The strips are then woven into cloth like materials which make beautiful joss paper
lanterns and other joss stick and decorative items. The worship of deities in Chinese traditional
folk religion uses a version of joss paper for their worship rituals.
The name joss paper comes from a story that the Buddha tells in the Katha Upanishad. In this
story, the Buddha tells his followers that when they burn incense in the temple, they will find hell
on the other side. The reason for this is because the burning of incense sticks creates a cloud of
smoke which represents hell, but when lit, it produces light instead of darkness.
It must be noted that in the United States, where many of our Christian denominations practice
the practice of animal sacrifice, joss paper burning is viewed as a form of animal cruelty. Some
people regard all burning of this paper as being cruelty to animals. I, however, see this as a
symbol of worship of God. After all, how could the God of the heavens come down to Earth and
perform His will on earth by means of the actions of humans?
Joss paper is not just burned for the purpose of worship, but it is also used in Chinese traditional
medicine. The ghosts of ancestors in Chinese culture are believed to be trapped in the same
paper that was burned in the temple. By placing a small amount of joss paper over the ghost’s
name, a person is believed to be able to find the spirit of the dead in that person. This is not an
easy task, and it is not unknown for some to not find the spirit at all, or only to discover that it is
wrapped in joss paper before they can be rescued. When this occurs, a festival known as the
“midsummer celebration” occurs where people celebrate the supposed return of the dead.
In Christianity, the practice of using less paper to appease offerings is part of the ancient
Catholic practice of offering sacrifice to the hungry ghost. The sacrifice is not solely of the body,
as in the sacrifice of one soul to Christ. It is also of the mind and spirit, since Jesus died and was
raised from the dead on the third day. Catholics believe that we enter into the world not dead,
but alive, hence the reason behind the yearly celebration of “Moons of Endor.”
In addition to praying to the gods for the successful raising of the dead who have been forgotten,
it has also been traditionally advised that a family member give away one joss paper of each
generation to the descendants of the deceased. Many wealthy families have made this a
practice to allow their ancestors to be remembered long after their passing. It is not uncommon
for a child to carry the paper as they grow older and eventually pass it down to their own
children. When this tradition is completed, each family member goes back to their joss paper
bundle as an offering. The purpose of this offering is to assure the continuation of the family line
and the continued presence of the departed ancestors.