What is a Wake?

Following the death of a loved one, many family members and friends find themselves overwhelmed by the wide variety of ceremonies associated with sending off the departed. From funerals to visitations to wakes, the customs surrounding burial can be a bit daunting.

A wake is one traditional method of saying goodbye to the deceased while providing comfort to close family and friends. Generally, they involve an open casket where visitors can get one last glimpse of the departed before they are placed to rest in the cemetery. 

What Do They Involve?

Wakes are much like visitation ceremonies since they generally occur before the funeral and are considered to be a way to provide respect to the deceased while also offering support to those who survive their death. 

While they are rarely pleasant to attend, they provide a form of closure for both those who have lost a loved one and their close friends, coworkers, and acquaintances. Although most people dress up and try to look their best, the atmosphere is laid-back, and visitors are invited to talk with one another while sharing stories and memories about the departed.    

The History of Wakes

Funeral wakes got their start in the Celtic countries of Europe. During these wakes, those who were mourning the death of a loved one would actually watch over the body until it was buried in an attempt to protect it from evil spirits. 

While they were originally a Catholic ceremony, they are now observed by most people and are more of a social gathering honoring the memory of a lost loved one than a plan to protect the body from harm.   

Wakes in Modern America

Wakes and visitations are a regular part of the burial process in modern America.  Nowadays, they are often held at the funeral home several days prior to the actual funeral service. Most of them involve an open casket where friends and relatives can look at the departed one last time.

The date and time of the ceremony is often displayed in the newspaper and online, allowing acquaintances and friends the opportunity to pay their condolences. If you know of someone who has passed away, you can find the details about their wake on the funeral home’s website or social media account. 

In general, they tend last several hours, providing visitors with the opportunity to choose between dropping by for a few minutes and staying to talk for the duration. 

Proper Etiquette

While wakes are generally open to the public, it’s important to be very sensitive about attending if you experienced a rift with the departed or their family. If you have been asked specifically not to attend, it is important to respect the wishes of those closest to the deceased. They don’t need additional stress and hardship during this time.

They often involve an opportunity for visitors to view the body of the deceased. While many people find this comforting as they pay their last respects and say their final goodbyes, others are uneasy about viewing someone who is dead.  If you feel uncomfortable looking at the deceased, feel free to pass by the casket without stopping and instead focus on spending time with the survivors.

Some wakes involve deeply religious ceremonies. Consider your own beliefs and how they coincide with the departed. If you feel that you can’t participate in the religious aspect of the wake, it would be better for you to pay your respects with a card or flowers. 

You shouldn't make yourself stay longer than you feel comfortable. Just making an appearance is usually enough to give the family the emotional support and respect that they need. 

What to Do After Arrival

Although wakes can be uncomfortable, they provide a good opportunity to talk to old friends and show how much you care. When attending a wake, feel free to shake hands with or hug those who lost their loved one. You can also share short stories and memories when appropriate. Don’t feel bad if the family doesn’t seem up to talking. Sometimes, just seeing you there will lift their spirits. 

If you don’t know a family member, be sure to introduce yourself and explain your relationship to their departed loved one.

Most wakes or visitations include a guest book where you can sign that you attended. Don’t forget to include your name. Deaths are very stressful and survivors may feel like they are in a daze, so seeing your name will provide them with the memory that you attended the wake. 

Losing someone can be difficult even if it is nothing more than a mere acquaintance. Attending a wake provides individuals with the opportunity to say goodbye while showing their support to the family.

If you know someone who has passed away, consider attending their wake or memorial service to show your respect. 

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