Tag Archives: korean religion

Korean Ancestral Commemoration Rites

Main Performance:

The jesa (제사) is traditional Korean ceremony that honors the family’s ancestors as well as deceased family members, particularly parents. It is a fairly large event that involves the extended family of the deceased parent to gather at the house of the eldest child, prepare food, and engage in a ceremony with specific steps. It is celebrated on different days for every family because it held on the day before the death of the deceased persons being honored. Back in Korea we’d have your uncles and aunts show up to commemorate your grandparents but we’re the only ones here in America so your mother doesn’t get as much help as she usually does. Even when if this isn’t even technically her own family that she’s making offerings for, she’s still the the only person who puts in this much effort. You also remember the steps better than I do these days.

The steps are as follows:

  1. The spirits of those who are to be honored are welcomed by an open door.
  2. The spirits are seated at the table before everyone else with food already prepared for them. The spirits are represented by a wooden plaque adorned with a photograph of themselves.
  3. An incense placed upon a bowl of uncooked rice is prepared between two lit candles and the eldest son of the spirits and their siblings or children pour glasses of rice or plum wine.
  4. Wine is poured three times until the cup is full and the cups are then rotated around the smoking incense three times, clockwise.
  5. The cups are placed by the bowls of the spirits and the ones who immediately poured and placed the drinks bow to the spirits. Men do two large bows and one half-bow while women do four half-bows.
  6. The above is repeated by the number of children of the deceased are present.
  7. Once the above step is completed, the spirits’ utensils are placed onto their favorites among the prepared food and the rest of the attendees excuse themselves to another room so the spirits may enjoy their meal alone.
  8. For a couple minutes, the gathered family engage in small talk, reminisce, and exchange pleasantries for a couple minutes before returning to the dining area.
  9. Steps 4 and 5 are repeated one last time and the spirits are led out to an open door and now the family is allowed to eat properly.
  10. The bowls that contained the rice and soup that the spirits would have eaten are considered to be blessed and are offered to those who need the ancestor’s blessings the most.


The informant is my father who has engaged in this ceremony longer than I have been alive. As he is the oldest among his three siblings, our house was where my father’s side of the family used to convene and celebrate together with as per tradition dictates that the eldest son continues the tradition. My father mentions how my mother has been diligent in her work to continue this tradition as she used to get help from my aunts in preparing the food but now she does all of the work alone for a ceremony honoring my father’s parents instead of any on her own side. Recently my mother receives help from my grandmother but since she is not directly related to my father’s parents, she does not partake in the ritual itself.


Every October 10th and November 30th, by Lunar Calendar dates, my family engages in these rituals and I’ve asked my father and mother many times about the procedure. Before long I was the one who remembered most of the steps.

My Thoughts:

Despite only having met my paternal grandparents only once or twice before their passing, this ceremony is something that has been ingrained in my life for as long as I could remember. The eldest son’s home becomes the liminal ground where the living descendants commune with the spirits of the deceased. Looking up articles of the ritual now, it appears that me and my family are skipping a number of steps but the way we’ve done it is how it has been for at least 30+ years. I always used to watch my father and my uncles do the steps back in Korea but after coming to the States, I began to take their place in placing offerings to my grandparents. The dates however do make it a pain for my mother who has to prepare not only for American Thanksgiving but also for preparing for my grandfather’s jesa. My parents often joke about how no other Korean family engages in this practice anymore and it made me recently realize that my parents being vaguely irreligious is probably the reason why. Many other Korean families are heavily Christian and have since abandoned the traditional ways which almost makes me a bit sad with how Westernization has started to blot out Korean culture.

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.