I have always been curious about the numbering system of the special memorial services held for the deceased.
What is the significance of 7th Day, 35th Day, 49th Day, 100th Day? Do these “numbers” signify some special place or stage of passage into the afterlife?
And after the 1st anniversary, what do the years 3, 7, 13, 17, 25, 33, 50 signify? Why were these “numbers” chosen? Are these certain steps in the process of the afterlife?
About the numbers
The number 7 is significant in Buddhism because it comes from the days of the historical Shakyamuni Buddha. In ancient India, the number 7 was significant because anything more than a week in the future was beyond human control. In particular, there were no foods that would keep for more than 7 days, thus one should not worry about things that far into the future.
Thus, memorial services were held every 7 days for 7 times, thus the 49th day memorial service was a “major” memorial service date. It seems that the 35th day memorial came into somewhat prominence in China. It is pretty certain that the 100th day memorial came into prominence in China, since it is an even number.
In general, in the Buddhist tradition, odd and even numbers have an added meaning. In particular, odd numbers have a sense “of becoming” and even numbers are complete or fulfilled. Thus, 7, 49 and other odd numbers would certainly be used to remind us that being human meant that we were not yet complete, i.e., we have more to do and thus we are still “becoming.”
It is very interesting that current scientific studies on death and grieving have supposedly shown that the second stage of grief (the first stage being the dealing with the physical death and funeral rituals—the busy time immediately after a death)is a period of adjustment and acceptance and is supposed to end about 45 to 50 days after a death.
These studies validate what Buddhists have known for centuries. For centuries, Buddhists have held the 49th day memorial service so that family and close friends can gather again and ensure that they can go forward.
As a side note, in traditional Japanese Buddhist families, the family would be vegetarian for the first 49 days after a person has passed away. The 49th day memorial service had an additional festive feeling because fish and meat could again be eaten after the memorial service.
About the years
The 1st anniversary is a significant time to ask the priest to conduct a memorial service and to gather family and friends to remember a departed loved one.
As for the way of counting, most Eastern cultures start counting 1 when the event occurs. That is, a baby is 1 year old at birth (so no one is 0 years old) and goes from there.
For the memorial counting, the date of death is 1, and the years count up from there. Therefore, one year after the death marks the 1st anniversary of the death—or by Eastern counting, the 2nd year. Two years after the death is when the 3rd-year service is held; it represents the “third time.”
The numbers 3, 7, 13, 17, 23, 27, 33 are just used as a sign that the family has not forgotten the loved one that has passed away. But the 50th year is significant because of how Japanese family burial plots are made and used.
In Japan, the family burial plot would be in the temple cemetery behind the temple building. It would be more like a hole under the family headstone with shelves in it. The most recent urn would be placed on the top shelf, and the older urns would be moved down. For practical reasons, after 50 years, the plot would be too crowded to hold more urns unless some were removed.
So the 50th Year memorial service would be held, the urn would be removed and the ashes disposed of. (While it was not supposed to be allowed, the family usually would scatter the ashes on the temple grounds and mix them with the dirt so the priest would not know. In this way, at least symbolically, the ashes stayed close to the temple and could still hear the sutras being chanted.)
In Shin Buddhism, our birth in the Pure Land is already assured by Amida Buddha’s Original/Primal Vow (the 18th Vow). Thus, we are all equal and we are all enjoying the benefits of Wisdom and Compassion.
This equalitarian nature of Shin Buddhism is reflected in the simpleness of Shin cemeteries. One does not have to do anything after death to “improve” the position of a deceased loved one. There is no need to have extra alms or special rituals or lavish decorations.
Thus, memorial services are only expressions of gratitude for the sharing of life that a loved one provided. We express our gratitude to Amida Buddha and offer sutras, incense, gassho and other spiritual offerings for the benefits we have already received from Amida’s Great Vow to ensure Enlightenment for all sentient beings.