iPhones for the Dead — Material Goods and the Chinese Afterlife

Narration by Nate Kan & Cody Horne
Audio by Elphick Wo
Photos by Mia Haggi

When a Chinese person dies, it’s customary to offer food, paper money and goods for use in the underworld. These goods are made of paper and can take the form of anything the living or the dead so desires, whether it be clothes, a house or even gold. But as times change and values follow, it’s not uncommon to see iPhones, LV bags or even whole convenience stores burned in offering.

 

Seeing this made several members of the team who are of Chinese descent wonder: “Is our culture so materialistic that our love for things consumes both our lives and afterlives?” As Cody and Nate find out, it’s not just about the things we see and the touch, but the greater cultural context that creates them.

A shop in Hung Hom sells funeral offerings and items for mourners alongside snacks

A shop in Hung Hom sells funeral offerings and items for mourners alongside snacks

This joss paper with gold leaf is burned for elder ancestors, spirits, and deities

The work of Feng Shui Consultants frequently intersects with funeral arrangements

A Yu Lan Festival banner common in locations throughout Hong Kong

The Yu Lan Festival is also commonly known as the Hungry Ghost Festival

During the festival, spirits are said to emerge from the underworld searching for food and entertainment

Chinese opera performances are a large part of the festival and take place all over Hong Kong

Members of an opera troupe from China take a break between their scenes

Large offerings are regularly burned in the giant temporary furnaces at each festival ground

Throughout the year, people will purchase items from funeral shops they will use to make offerings to their ancestors, spirits and gods.