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Cultures collide in confiscation of $4.6 million in 'hell money'

Customs agents found more than a hundred bundles of counterfeit cash in the baggage of a Vietnamese couple, who say the fake cash was intended for a funerary ritual. 

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    Ethnic-Chinese Indonesians throw 'hell money,' prepared as offerings for their ancestors' souls into the air during the 'hungry ghost' festival in Medan, North Sumatra, Indonesia, Aug. 28.
    Binsar Bakkara/AP/File
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Federal authorities seized more than $4.6 million in counterfeit cash on Friday from a Vietnamese couple arriving at the Detroit Metropolitan Airport.

US Customs and Border Protection agents say that the married couple, who had flown in from Seoul, South Korea, had initially made conflicting statements about the cash that they carried. In a secondary baggage examination, officers at the airport in Romulus discovered a large bundle of fake paper money – not officially recognized currency or legal tender.

The customs agents counted 93 bundles of counterfeit $100 bills and 32 bundles of Vietnamese currency, all of which are supposed to be what they call “hell money,” which the couple said they were going to use in the funeral of a relative.

Also known as joss paper or spirit money, the fake currency is used in funeral rituals for various Asian religions. Mourners burn the money in hopes of granting their deceased loved ones all the necessary resources in the afterlife.

Although the offering is sometimes referred to as “hell money,” it has nothing to do with Western connotations of hell. The Asian understanding of hell is different than Western versions. Under the Chinese belief, for instance, all who die will initially end up in the same place: the underworld of Diyu. Then, they are sent to heaven, to be punished, or to be reincarnated. “Hell” then, is the neutral form for afterlife in general.

The burning of spirit money is also part of traditional Chinese deity or ancestor worship ceremonies during holidays. The tradition dates to as far back as about 1000 BC, as archaeologists have found stone and bone imitations of money in tombs.

But US officials say it’s illegal to import fake money, regardless of intent.

“Attempting to import any amount of counterfeit currency, regardless of the intended purpose, can have serious implications for arriving travelers,” Port Director Devin Chamberlain, said in a statement. “Quality law enforcement work and solid attention to detail resulted in this seizure, and I am proud of the officers involved.”

Homeland Security and the US Secret Service agents have since taken custody of the currency.

This report contains material from the Associated Press.

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