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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.