Joss paper is paper printed with various representations of earthly goods, such as money, which is burned during ceremonies meant to honor ancestors or deities in some parts of Asia. Paper designed to represent money is the most common form, although it can also represent houses, cars, credit cards, and an assortment of other things. It is typically made of white bamboo or rice paper, and may be decorated with seals or stamps.
By tradition, people burn joss paper as an offering to deities, and to provide their deceased relatives with things they might need in the afterlife. This practice is not performed in all parts of Asia; some Buddhists, for example, find the thought of sending representations of earthly goods to their relatives inappropriate. It is common enough, however, that this type of paper is often found in Asian markets, and street vendors often sell it near temples.
Joss paper is also called ghost or spirit money, and sometimes as "hell bank notes." In Asia, "hell" doesn't carry quite the same connotations that it does for Westerners; it simply refers to the afterlife, where people are judged. Hell bank notes are sent to relatives by burning so that they can bribe the king of hell to escape early, and so that they can spend lavishly in the afterlife. These papers are often quite elaborate, and they typically feature a portrait of the Jade Emperor, who rules the afterlife.
In addition to burning joss paper, people typically burn incense and provide offerings of food during ceremonies held to honor the dead and various deities. The paper may be folded into specific shapes which are meant to bring on good luck, and people typically burn lavish amounts to ensure that the offering is well received. Depending on the region, the paper may be decorated with seals, stamps, pieces of contrasting paper, engraved designs, or other motifs. Folding joss paper is often an important part of the ceremony, as it distinguishes the paper from actual money — burning money is considered to be unlucky in Asian cultures.
A number of superstitions surround joss paper in Asian society. As a general rule, it should never be given to a living person, because this is viewed as highly offensive. It is also kept concealed when it is stored at home, because it is supposed to bring down bad luck when left on display. Joss paper should never be used for anything other than its intended purpose, and while Westerners may be tempted to use it for decorating, they should be aware that Asian guests may be offended or feel uncomfortable when it is on display, as it is associated with death.