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What is a Wake?

When it comes to funeral services, there are many different terms that can be confusing for those not familiar with them. One of these is the wake, an important part of many funeral services.

What is a wake?

A wake is typically held the day or night before the actual funeral service to give family and friends an opportunity to pay their respects and share memories of the deceased. It usually takes place in a home or at a venue (such as a funeral home or chapel) dedicated for wakes and funerals.

How long after death is a wake?

The timing of a wake can vary depending on the family's preference, but in most cases the wake takes place within a week of the death occurring.

How long is a wake?

The length of a wake will vary depending on the wishes of the family and how large or small the gathering is. Generally, a wake can last anywhere from an hour to several hours.

What happens at a wake?

A few things typically happen at a wake (or viewing) including:

  • Prayers, hymns or sermons being shared
  • Sharing of memories and stories about the deceased
  • Offerings being made to the deceased or to the family of the deceased, depending on the culture
  • A receiving line where visitors can offer their condolences to the family
  • An opportunity for visitors to view the body of the deceased, if they wish

The wake is an important part of a funeral service and can be used to bring closure and comfort to those who have lost a loved one.

When relevant, offerings are given to the deceased, depending on the culture. Offerings can include anything from food or drinks to candles or incense. If you're not sure what to expect, you can research the culture of the individual or ask a family member of the deceased.

What to bring to a wake service

If you are attending a wake service, you may be wondering what to bring with you and what to do at the wake. It's best to ask the family of the deceased if they have any specific requests, such as food or flowers. Generally, though, it is appropriate to bring a card, flowers or sympathy gift for the family.

Do you give money at a wake?

It is generally not considered proper wake etiquette to give money at a wake service, unless you’re attending a Chinese service. (It is customary to offer a gift of money at a Chinese wake or funeral.) If you are attending the funeral or repass, however, it may be appropriate to make a donation in honor of the deceased. If you're considering making a donation, making it through the memorial website is an easy way to support the family without putting them on the spot.

Should I attend the wake, the funeral or the repass?

It's up to you to decide what type of service you would like to attend. If you are only able to attend one service, it is generally recommended that you attend the funeral as this will more often provide an opportunity for closure. However, if you feel that attending the wake would be helpful in your grieving process, then that is perfectly appropriate as well. Many people attend all of these events (the wake, the funeral, and the repass) so you don’t need to choose between them, though you may need to choose depending on your schedule and preferences.

What to say at a wake receiving line

When you arrive at the wake and are welcomed by the family, it is polite to say a few words of condolence or sympathy. This can be anything from expressing how sorry you are for their loss to sharing a fond memory of the deceased. Some examples of appropriate condolences include:

  • “I’m so sorry for your loss.”
  • “My thoughts and prayers are with you during this difficult time.”
  • “[He/she/they] will be greatly missed.”
  • “May their memory be a blessing to you always.”

It is also important to remember that everyone handles grief in their own way and some people may prefer to speak about the deceased rather than simply expressing condolences, though it's important to be mindful of how much of the family's time you're taking up, especially when in a receiving line.

Why is it called a wake?

The term “wake” originated from the Old English word “wacan” which means “to stay awake.” Traditionally, wakes were held overnight while the family and other guests stayed up all night in honor of the deceased, thus giving rise to the name wake. In addition to honoring the deceased, staying awake was a way of watching over the body until the time of the funeral service.

Funeral vs. wake vs. visitation vs. viewings

Though these terms can sometimes be mistakenly used interchangeably, there are differences between a wake, a visitation, and a viewing.

What is the difference between a funeral, a wake, a visitation and a viewing?

When it comes to funeral services, there are a lot of terms that can cause confusion. Since this isn't always common knowledge, here are some definitions for common terms associated with funerals.

Viewing: A viewing takes place before the funeral service. It is a time for family and friends to come together in order to pay their respects to the deceased and support each other during this difficult time. Viewings are generally non-religious events and take place about a day before the funeral service. The body is typically present at a viewing.

Wake: Similar to a viewing, a wake is a ceremony that typically takes place a day or a few days before the funeral service. It's a time for family, friends, and acquaintances to gather and pay their respects to the deceased. The main difference between a wake and a viewing is that a viewing is generally an unstructured and non-religious event while a wake has its roots in the Catholic church.

Traditionally, wakes are more formal events, and, depending on the type of wake (an Irish wake or Catholic wake, for example), a priest may be there to read specific scriptures or give a short sermon during the event.

Visitation: A visitation is similar to a viewing, except it typically does not include the body being present at the time of the visitation. If the body is present, it's not typically in an open casket. Families and friends are still encouraged to share their condolences and pay their respects to the deceased. Visitations typically take place in the funeral home or in the family's home and occur before the funeral.

Funeral: A funeral is the official service that takes place either at a church or another type of venue. It is a time for the deceased to be remembered and honored by family, friends and acquaintances with speeches, prayers and other tributes. The body is typically present at a funeral.

What is a funeral wake?

You may hear individuals referring to a 'funeral wake' when talking about upcoming services. If you're looking for information on funeral wakes and are finding it hard to find a definition, it's because a wake and a funeral wake are one and the same. A funeral wake is just another way to say "wake", or the time for viewing the body before the funeral service itself.

What is a wake at a funeral?

A wake at a funeral is typically the time before a funeral service where family and friends gather to pay their respects to the deceased. It's usually held in a place (such as a funeral home or chapel) dedicated for wakes and funerals. In general, you would not attend a wake at the funeral service itself, you'd attend the wake before attending the funeral service. Wakes also typically happen the day or night before the funeral service.

What is a Catholic wake?

A Catholic wake is a ceremony that takes place in the days or hours before the funeral service. Prior to 1971, these services were held at the home of the deceased and typically lasted up to three days. During this time, family and friends gather to pay their respects and pray for the soul of the deceased and a sermon or prayers are often read.

Today, Catholic wakes typically take place the day or night before the funeral service. In some cases, there will still be a short period of time for family and friends to gather at the home of the deceased. During the Catholic wake, a priest might say a short sermon or read specific scriptures.

No matter what kind of wake you're attending, it's important to remember that this is an emotional time for grieving families and friends.

The wake is a traditional gathering of family and friends that has been respected for centuries. It is an important part of the funeral process, as it allows mourners to pay their respects and share memories of the deceased in an intimate setting. With some understanding of what a wake is, what to bring, and the different types of wakes available, you can better prepare yourself for this time of remembrance.

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Last updated December 30, 2022
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