Tag Archives: religious folklore

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. 

Three Kings’ Day

My friend Rudy, who is Mexican-American, shared the following description with me of how their family celebrates Three Kings’ Day:

“Three Kings’ Day is a really big one- that one we celebrated specifically. So that was like, January 6th, it’s the day that the three wise men finally reach Bethlehem with the baby Jesus. And um we- you’re actually not allowed to throw out your Christmas tree, in like, Mexican culture, like until Three Kings’ Day. So you have to keep your tree until then because that’s like, the official like, end of the season. And like, you put your shoes out and you leave food for the camels and then they fill your shoes with like sweets or a toy as a thank you for um, feeding the camels and giving them a rest. And like as a congratulations for being a good child. And so that was um, always important, and then you have a rosca de reyes which is um, a bread shaped like a crown so it’s like, circular bread. And um, there is sugar on it and dried fruits and there’s also tiny baby Jesuses inside it…There’s like multiple babies in roscas sometimes cause people like, like to play with fire. And um, well it’s like, when you get the slice and you get a baby Jesus inside your slice then you are obligated to throw a party on February second. And that’s the uh, day that Jesus is presented to the temple. Um, so you have to throw the party that day. But at that point it’s less about Jesus and more about more partying.”

When I heard Rudy’s description of the rosca de reyes, I recognized it as a variant of the “king cake” eaten in New Orleans on Mardi Gras. Mardi Gras king cakes are also circular and have a tiny plastic baby representing the baby Jesus baked into them. The version of the king cake tradition I learned from my aunt, who lives in New Orleans, says that the person who gets the baby in their slice has to buy the cake the following year. The king cake/rosca is a prime example of folkloric foodways that are present, but variable, across cultures.