Tag Archives: Afterlife

49 Days After One’s Death in Korean Buddhism

Main Piece : 

49 Days After One’s Death in Buddhism

Context :

My informant is an adult female who was born in Seoul, South Korea. She received Korean education throughout her life and mainly speaks Korean. She believes in Buddhism and has been attending temple events for a long time. Her family also are Buddhist and follows the Buddhist way when it comes to events such as funerals and ancestral rites. Here, she is describing how a Buddhist ancestral rites is done during 49 days after one’s death. She is identified as K, and I will be identified as E in the dialogue. This piece was collected over a phone call in Korean and was translated into English.

K : In Korean Buddhist belief, 49 days after one’s death is the most critical time after the funeral. Once someone dies, they do not go to heaven or hell but are kept in a ‘middle-zone’ between Earth and the heavens for 49 days and are sent to seven stages of hell to judge whether they have lived an honest life.

E : What does it mean by ‘honest’ life?

K : It means that they haven’t done any wrong doings. One must not lie, not kill someone, not trick someone, and stuff like those. Even telling a small lie to your friend also counts as wrongdoing. Each hell determines if you have committed a crime. One category of these hell judges a ‘crime you have committed with your words’. This would include speaking bad about your friends, hurting your parent’s feelings with words, or lying. Like this, the ‘crime’ itself doesn’t always need to be a serious offense such as murdering or deceiving multiple people for money. We might be committing a ‘crime’ even now as we talk. 

E : So it means that you must be aware of what action you take, I guess. 

K : Yes. This belief tells people that anyone can be an ‘offender’ in the afterworld and makes them cautious. After the 7 weeks and 7 trials, they are then determined what life they will be living in their next life. Depending on how you lived your previous life, you might be reborn as a human, an animal, or even a non-animal such as a rock. The better life you lived, the more human you will become. If you commit a big crime, you will be reborn as an animal such as a dog or a pig. If you didn’t commit any sort of crime and lived a very pure life, that’s when you get your chance to enter heaven. 

E : Does that mean it’s impossible since we all commit ‘crimes’?

K : It sounds like it, doesn’t it? But it’s described to be possible. That’s why Buddhist monks shave their head, live in the temple, and train to strengthen their mind and body. This is also related to why they don’t eat any kind of meat – it means that an animal must unnecessarily die for the monks for their meal. In order to stop the unnecessary death, they eat with vegan choices. They are the closest beings to heaven since they consciously try to prevent themselves from commiting wrongdoings. Also, know that during those 49 days, the family members of the recently deceased are recommended to not participate in any events that are enjoyable. This includes drinking alcohol, going to a party, or going on a trip. It’s not set as a strict rule, but you just need to do it to show respect. You also wear only dark-colored clothes such as black or dark grey. 

Analysis :

This proverb shows how the Korean society believes in the Karma system and the cycle of life. In Buddhism belief, when one dies, they don’t directly go to heaven or hell like Christianity but are judged for the next 48 days for how they have lived in their previous life and how many wrongdoings they have done. I think the fact that the trial of one’s death is continued on for a long time is also to give a sense of pressure to people to not commit wrongdoings when they are alive. It pressures people to only act nicely if they do not want to be suffering even after their death. 

For another version of this story, take a look at the film, “Along with the Gods”. This Korean movie was made in 2017 and was based on the comic by Ho-Min Ju. The movie is about what happens in one’s afterlife in Buddhist belief and gives a good summary of the informant’s piece. 

Significance of Incense

Context :

My informant is an adult female who was born in Seoul, South Korea. She received Korean education throughout her life and mainly speaks Korean. She believes in Buddhism and has been attending temple events for a long time. Her family also are Buddhist and follows the Buddhist way when it comes to events such as funerals and ancestral rites. Here, she is describing what an incense signifies in ancestral rites. She is identified as K and this piece was collected over a phone call in Korean and was translated into English.

K : You know what incense is, right? It’s a stick you light it on fire like a candle and it produces smoke with a certain smell to it. Rather than smelling like something burning, it has a very organic smell to it. Maybe like burning wood. In Korean ancestral rites, burning an incense means that the person who burned the incense is calling the Gods and their ancestors from the sky. The smoke rises from the ground and when it reaches the sky, the God or the ancestor will know someone is calling them. If someone is only wishing for something, it is calling God to grant their dear wish. If someone is performing an ancestral rite, it means that they are calling their ancestors. 

Analysis : 

In our family, we burn incenses more than candles. Before listening to the meaning behind burning incenses, I only thought we do this for the smell of it or as a tradition; I was surprised that the smoke and the smell of the incense was meant to reach the sky. I think this aspect of burning incenses show the earnest wish of the user to see and meet the holistic figures. It should also be noted that not all incenses are meant for deep meanings like calling their God or ancestors, but a lot of people use it for its good smell. 

Bowing Down Twice

Context :

My informant is an adult female who was born in Seoul, South Korea. She received Korean education throughout her life and mainly speaks Korean. She believes in Buddhism and has been attending temple events for a long time. Her family also are Buddhist and follows the Buddhist way when it comes to events such as funerals and ancestral rites. Here, she is describing why bowing down only twice is important during a memorial rite or a funeral. This piece was collected over a phone call in Korean and was translated into English.

She told me that to understand this piece, you need to understand the Yin and the Yang (negative and positive) culture of Asian countries. Yin, is the power that is believed to be dark and negative, while Yang is the positive power. 

In Korean funerals or memorial rites, people only bow down twice. It is believed that one’s first bow means the Yang power and the second bow means the Yin power. This means that the first bow is only meant for the people who are living and the second bow is for the people who are dead and no longer in this ‘living’ world. Thus, when you bow down to the families of the dead, you only bow once because they are alive, and you bow down twice to show respect to the dead. Events that require bowing down and related to death such as a funeral or an ancestral rite will require bowing down twice. 

My informant also highlighted that all bows should be performed with the utmost respect because this is a matter of living and the dead. 

Analysis :

When I was young and attended funerals, I remember peeking through my arm to see how many times my parents were bowing down. I was sometimes confused because they would bow down once in some situations and would bow down twice in some situations. This connection of Yin and Yang with the funeral culture show how Asian countries strongly believe in the ‘powers’ of negativity and positivity and its connection to Confucianism; you need to have detailed and precise actions even when you are showing respect to your ancestors.

Blue Ghosts in Okinawa, Japan

AM: So, it was- like the first month or two when i moved to Japan and I was hanging outside at like…2am like at night in a park. Um, the military base we was staying on was built like near like Japanese Shrines and whatnot and they said that you know the shrines are haunted and there’s a lotta “superstitions” with those. So while we’re out hanging, there was like oh look- you can see a bluf- blue figure on a hill like on top of the shrine and when I looked over you- I saw like a bluish like glow from the hills where the shrine was and they said that this island is one of the most haunted places and that there’s a lot of spirits around.

VG: Woah. What island was it?

AM: Okinawa.

VG: Woah-

AM: And that is- it is very common to see those there… so we was like “yeah, let’s get the hell out of here.”



Location of Story – Okinawa, Japan

Location of Performance – Dormitory room, Los Angeles, CA, night


Context: This performance took place in a group setting – about 2-3 people – in a college dormitory room. This performance was prompted by the call for stories about beliefs, ghosts, or superstitions as examples of folklore. This story came after a few others. The one prior was specifically about a high school grade being cursed.


Analysis: One point of interest in this performance is the effectiveness of the subtlety of the description of the “spirits.” The only physical description the audience receives about these supernatural beings is that they humanoid in figure and blue. The color is particularly notable because, at least in my experience, I have always viewed the ghosts in ghost stories as being neutral toned or white. Therefore, this description was able to create a whole new image for me and draw me deeper into this performance. It also reinforces the foreignness AM might feel since he had just moved to Japan: not only is the location different but also all of the local lore. One might even go so far as to say that this story was presented with a negative conation despite having no description of graphic hauntings or threats. 

Waking up the Dead

The informant was a high school classmate that graduated the same year as me and also is studying at USC. We met up for a snack at one of the cafes on campus and, then sat outside to catch up and exchange news and stories.


Specifically in Hawaii, you are not supposed whistle at night or walk on your knees at night. Supposedly, when you whistle, you are calling the dead, and if you walk on your knees, it is like walking on the bones and spirits of the dead and waking them up.

The informant learned these two superstitions from a close friend, N, who is very superstitious, and tells her all sorts of myths and legends relating to Hawaii, as well as things to watch out for or to not do.

The informant herself doesn’t completely buy into the superstitions, and has even whistled at night or walked on her knees at night and nothing bad has happened. People who are very religious, superstitious, or carry strong ancient beliefs, are more likely to take heed.

Background & Analysis

The informant was born and raised in Waimea town on the Big Island of Hawaii. N is a very close friend who is native Hawaiian, and her family is very traditional. Many of the stories and superstitions passed down through N’s family were shared with the informant over the years.

Even though I was raised in Hawaii, I had never heard of these two particular superstitions, so I was very excited when the informant shared them with me. In Hawaiian culture, there is a strong belief in ethereal spirits, especially evil or vengeful ones. These are probably just another two of many superstitions about the dead and the afterlife in Hawaii.

Funeral Customs

Funeral Customs


Q: Why do Koreans wear white at funerals?

A: Because it’s clean. It shows that when they’re being sent off from this world to another, whatever world there is, they’re going off cleanly. It cleanses them of their life they led on earth and also paves the road in front of them to be smooth and clean.

Q: Why do people where black now?

A: Because it’s an American tradition. Normally Koreans, Asian cultures in general, wore white. Traditional clothes are also worn at funerals; it’s a sign of respect.


Chinese Religious Folk Belief on Life after Death and Spirits

This folk belief was collected from my Father. My father was born as a farmer’s son into a veteran’s family in Taipei, Taiwan. His father and mother ran away from China to Taipei during the Chinese Civil War. Many of his cultural practices and beliefs are taken from mainland Chinese culture. Because of his background, he is considered a “mainlander” in Taiwan (Chinese in Taiwan are divided into Mainland Chinese, Taiwanese or indigenous). My father graduated from Iowa University with an MBA. His B.A was obtained in Taiwan.

When we were having our regular telephone session, he told me the the following recollection on the phone (in Chinese):

(This is not a direct transcription or translation. It’s based off what I remember him saying)

“I was at your grandmother’s house the other day and during the course of our conversations she remarked how Grandpa’s spirit hadn’t visited the family at all after his death. Because of this, she began wondering if Grandpa was doing okay in the spirit world. I chatted with her a bit more and she then told this story:

‘Your great grandmother used lived in a province called Fujien in China. She was married into the Lian family at around 8 or 9 and stayed at the Lian household to be raised into an ideal wife. At the Lian’s household, your great grandmother was one your great great grandmother’s favorites (your great grandmother’s mother-in-law). They were so close, they even slept in the same bed together–like mother and daughter. So in your great great grandmother’s old age, when she felt death looming, she told your great grandmother that after her death, she would come back as a spirit and protect your great grandmother. Thus, she told your great grandmother not to be afraid if she heard or saw things at night when her spirit came to visit. Now, when the time came and your great great grandmother passed away, supernatural occurrences actually began to happen in the Lian household. Late at night the drawers would rattle, floorboards would creak and places your great great grandmother frequented would shake–your great great grandmother’s spirit had, as she promised, come back as a spirit to visit the house she was so used to and to say her final goodbyes before moving on. Naturally, all this supernatural activity scared the wits out of your great grandmother’s aunt. She would be so scared she wouldn’t go to the bathroom at night and resort to peeing on the bed! But, knowing that it was only your great great grandmother’s spirit coming to visit, your great grandmother continued her late night activities with indifference and she was happy to know that her great great grandmother was doing well in the afterlife.’

Later, I asked her why Grandpa’s spirit hasn’t visited, to which she replied that it was probably because a) in a modern cityscape, it’s not dark enough. There are too many lights, which scare the ghosts away. And b) they had moved too much and Grandpa couldn’t find their new homes.”

When I asked my father what the significance of this family legend was, my father said that he said the pre-dominant belief (even to this day) in Chinese culture was that the spirit or the soul of a person stays on earth for a week before it moves on to heaven. And during this week, the spirit often visits loved ones and goes to places he or she was used to going when they were living.

While my father said the significance of this legend was the folk belief that “a spirit stays on earth for a week after death”, I want to point out a few other folk beliefs and practices revealed in his story. First of all, we can see a sexist or patriarchal society structure in China about four generations ago. My great great grandmother was married around the age of 8 to be raised as an ideal wife. From this tidbit, it would seem that the only role a woman had in life was to be a wife. Second, we see a firm belief in the supernatural. My great grandmother and my grandmother never questioned the supernatural occurrences in this family legend–to them it was normal and commonly accepted that there were spirits living around them. Adding to that, the recollection implies that this belief in the supernatural is passed from generation to generation through word of mouth. Because of this, my father believes in the supernatural and even I, being an atheist, believe in these folk beliefs about the supernatural as well. Also, similar to other folk beliefs, this family legend reinforces the idea that ghosts only come out at night (in this case, the reason provided is that ghosts fear the light).

Most importantly, in this legend, a great significance is given to the family. Where in the folklore of other cultures, ghosts and spirits may come out to scare or devour humans, in this legend, the spirit returns to give condolences to its family–giving spirits a much more homely feeling than other folk legends and superstitions do. This emphasis on family reinforces the importance placed on the values of family and community that so many of our contemporary scholars have found in Chinese culture.