49 Days After Death: Buddhist Mourning Explained

Updated

What usually informs a culture’s beliefs and traditions about death and mourning? 

You got it — religious beliefs. This is certainly the case with Buddhism. Although the specific nature of Buddhist funeral rites can vary based on factors like location and the specific branch of Buddhism, certain common traditions can teach you a lot about the way Buddhists approach death in general.

Jump ahead to these sections:

Consider the tradition that sometimes occurs for 49 days after death in Buddhism. Some Buddhists don’t limit funeral ceremonies to single days. Instead, they extend them over a longer period of time.

This guide will explain the significance of the 49 days after death in Buddhism. It’ll help you better understand what it is and why many Buddhists practice this ritual.

What is the Significance of 49 Days After Death?

Some Buddhists begin performing religious funeral ceremonies seven days after a person dies. They then repeat the ceremonies every day for 49 days, because seven times seven equals 49. These ceremonies typically feature prayers and similar rituals.

Origins

The traditions associated with the 49 days after death in Buddhism derive from “The Tibetan Book of the Dead,” also known as the “Bardo Thodol.” Tibetan Buddhists use this book to help guide their consciousness toward rebirth after they die.

“The Tibetan Book of the Dead” establishes many traditional beliefs Tibetan Buddhists have regarding the afterlife. They don’t believe that people who die go directly to heaven or hell. Prior to their next incarnation, Buddhists believe they go through stages after death. This belief directly contributes to the ceremonies and rituals Tibetan Buddhists perform for 49 days after a person dies.

Meaning

Buddhists believe that a person will continue the cycle of birth, life, death, and rebirth until they reach nirvana, or enlightenment. However, they don’t necessarily believe that a person is immediately reborn after they die. A person first goes through an “intermediate state” (bardo) before his next rebirth. Many Buddhists believe 49 days is the longest length of time the intermediate state can last.

This is the key reason they perform religious ceremonies every day for 49 days. Buddhists offer up prayers to improve the odds that a person who has died will experience a positive rebirth. According to Tibetan Buddhists, when a person dies, they actually go through three stages. Prayers help them work through the process.

  • The first stage occurs immediately after someone dies. This is the stage when what remains of their consciousness accepts death and spends time reflecting on their living experiences. 
  • During the second stage, which can last up to 49 days (although some Buddhists believe that it always lasts that long), a person’s consciousness may run into apparitions that can frighten them if they forget these apparitions are not real and can’t hurt them. That’s why loved ones pray during the 49 days after death in Buddhism. They believe a person’s consciousness can still receive and understand the words spoken to them in prayer. Because of this, prayers can theoretically help a consciousness navigate this stage. Without them, the apparitions they encounter might confuse them to such a degree that when they’re reborn, they end up in a body that will slow down their progress toward enlightenment. 

It’s interesting to note that the 49 days after death in Buddhism somewhat resembles beliefs from other cultures. While it’s important to remember that no two cultures or religions are exactly the same, according to some Christian beliefs, a soul remains on Earth for 40 days after death before fully transitioning to the afterlife.

The emotional role of the 49 days after death in Buddhism

The 49 days after death Buddhism tradition also naturally plays a role in helping loved ones mourn those who have passed on. This tradition, like so many other funeral and mourning traditions throughout the world, gives people the time they need to cope with a family member or friend’s death.

In fact, after the 49-day ceremonies conclude, many Buddhists will still meet up to repeat their religious ceremonies at key intervals during the year after a person dies. For instance, mourners might gather together to perform ceremonies 100 days later, then 265 days later, finally ending the ceremonies on the one-year anniversary of a person’s death.

This demonstrates how religious beliefs can help people accept a loved one’s death over a long period of time. After all, the mourning process can last quite a while. Religious ceremonies and traditions often allow the process to run its course naturally.

Where it’s practiced

Remember, it’s important to understand that Buddhist religious beliefs aren’t universal. This is true of virtually any major religion. Not all Christians practice Christianity the same way, and not all Buddhists practice Buddhism the same way.

For instance, the 49 days after death in Buddhism tradition springs from Tibetan Buddhism. That means it’s most common in areas where Tibetan Buddhism has a strong influence. This obviously includes Tibet as well as Vietnam, Nepal, and Central Asia in general.

ยป MORE: Grief is never linear. This post-loss checklist is here for you.

 

How is the 49th Day After a Death Observed?

The 49th day after someone dies is the day when rituals can cease and loved ones can finally begin to mourn informally. Until they reach this stage, they may practice several rituals.

Rites and rituals

The following are key rituals that often take place during the 49 days after death in Buddhism. They serve a range of purposes, but all reflect core Buddhist beliefs.

Reciting the “Bardo Thodol”

“The Tibetan Book of the Dead” doesn’t merely describe what happens to someone’s consciousness after they die. It also serves as a funerary text. 

During the 49 days after death in Buddhism, a lama, or spiritual leader, will traditionally recite “The Tibetan Book of the Dead” every day. The lama provides the dead with instructions on how to navigate the bardos before reincarnating.

Recitation of prayers

A lama (rather than a family member) will typically read from “The Tibetan Book of the Dead” following someone’s passing because the lama is a religious figure qualified to do so. However, family members and loved ones can also participate by reciting other prayers throughout the 49 days. 

Specifically, Buddhists often recite prayers of good deeds and prayers of aspiration. They might enhance the strength of their prayers by making donations to monasteries and/or the poor as well.

Purification rituals

Many religions state that a person’s actions in life will determine what happens after their death to some degree. Again, while Buddhists don’t believe people go to hell, they do believe that misdeeds can play a role in someone’s fate as they prepare for their next rebirth.

That’s why they often perform purification rituals or recite purification prayers during the 49 days after someone has died. This can involve rituals in which a person confesses to sins to wash them away. Buddhists sometimes meditate on purification during this time as well.

Burning incense

Many cultures burn incense to remember the dead. During the 49 days after death, as well as on the other days throughout the years when loved ones gather to remember someone who has passed, Buddhists will often light incense at altars in honor of one who has died.

Presenting of food

It’s not uncommon for Buddhists to gather around an altar for a deceased loved one and share a meal during the 49 days after their death. What’s most significant is that they often set aside food for the person who has died.

This signifies that although this person may have passed on, he or she remains an important part of the family. In many ways, this corresponds to the Day of the Dead practices that involve offering food for the dead at their shrines.

Focusing on positivity

Again, the tradition of praying for the dead for 49 days after death in Buddhism also serves to help loved ones grieve. However, for many Buddhists, the time to truly mourn someone who has died doesn’t actually arrive until after the 49th day.

Until that stage, Tibetan Buddhist teachings often encourage loved ones to focus on positive thoughts and feelings during the ceremonies. They should refrain from crying or otherwise expressing grief in typically negative ways until they reach this point.

This helps a person who has died remember that they are no longer living. Additionally, it helps them remember that death isn’t a negative experience. It’s a chance to experience rebirth and continue progressing toward enlightenment.

49 Days of Remembrance

Whether you’re interested in Korean funerals, Chinese funerals, or funerals from another culture, learning about the ways different people mourn the dead can help you get a better understanding of their overall cultural beliefs.

This is merely one example of a post-death ritual that exemplifies key Buddhist religious beliefs. Buddhists believe life goes on after death. They also believe loved ones can play a role in making sure the next stage in someone’s existence is a positive one.


Sources

  1. Hoang, Dieu-Hien T. “Death Rituals in Vietnamese Society.” EthnoMed, University of Washington, 1 December 2000, webs01.hsl.washington.edu/clinical/end-of-life/death-in-viet 
  2. Majer, Zsuzsa. “PRELIMINARY NOTES ON TIBETAN AFTER-DEATH RITES AND THEIR TEXTS IN MONGOLIAN BUDDHIST PRACTICE.” Eötvös Loránd University, Department of Mongolian and Inner Asian Studies, Budapest, 2018, real.mtak.hu/88105/6/MZs_Preliminary.pdf 
  3. Steffon, Matt. “Bardo Thödol.” Encyclopedia Britannica, Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc., www.britannica.com/topic/Bardo-Thodol 
  4. Workman-Newkirk, Autumn. “Grief & Tibetan Buddhism.” Indiana University, Autumn Workman-Newkirk, www.indiana.edu/~famlygrf/culture/workman.html 

Icons sourced from FlatIcon.