What Is a Wake? Etiquette, Expectations, & More

What is a wake? Etiquette, FAQs, and More

In this article we are going to talk about wakes. What is a wake? How are you expected to act, and what should you expect? What is the proper etiquette for attending a wake?

And the question most of you are probably wondering but are afraid to ask…

Will you need to view the body in an open casket?

There comes a time in almost everybody’s life when you are required or asked to attend the wake for a loved one. But what exactly is a wake, and what happens during it?

Today we are going to answer these questions and more. So let’s dive right in!

What is a wake?

Question: So, what exactly is a wake?

Answer: Often held in the decedent’s home, a wake is a time close friends and family members to gather together, mourn, visit, express condolences, and say their goodbyes to the departed loved one.

Generally speaking, a wake is the service held the evening before the funeral. Sometimes called a visitation or viewing, the wake is a solemn (but usually informal) event at which those who knew the deceased come to pay their respects to the family. The body (or, sometimes, cremated remains) is typically present.

While the wake has traditionally been held in the home (and often still is), many funeral homes provide a venue for the wake and will often be the preferred location.

What happens at a wake?

Question: What can I expect to happen during the wake?

Answer: It really depends on the culture. If the deceased or their family was non-denominational or Protestant, the wake will likely be fairly casual. There may be singing or prayers or even a short sermon, but it will probably be more like an informal visit with the family than anything.

The family will probably provide a guest book that you can sign (which you should do). There may even be food or coffee available (but don’t count on it!). If the deceased was Catholic, the Rosary may be said toward the end.

Other cultures and religions have various traditions for their wakes. For more information, please see Should I Attend Both the Wake and the Funeral?

Will I need to view the body? Or: Will it be open-casket?

Question: I’ve been invited to a wake, but I’m not sure if I’ll be comfortable viewing the body. Is that okay?

Answer: It is 100% okay to not want to view the body, or even be in the general area with the casket. Remember that this is a very emotional time, and you are there to support the family (or they are there to support you). You do not have to view the body if you are not ready to, and no one should make you feel like you have to.

Typically there will be a room for the casket or cremation urn. Most wakes do have the body present, and most often it is open-casket.

But again, since the wake is a semi-informal event, you can attend and simply skip viewing the body. Just be prepared in the event that the casket is in the entry way or foyer.

Should I bring a gift to the wake?

Question: Can I bring a sympathy gift?

Answer: Of course you can! But keep in mind that gifts are not usually expected. So if your question is, “Am I required or expected to bring a gift to the wake?” then the answer is, No.

However, if you want to show support in this way, consider plants or floral arrangements. These are an appropriate choice for a gift at wakes and funerals. You can order funeral flowers or plants at any local florist.

There may also be a wish on behalf of the deceased to donate to a charity in lieu of flowers. If that is the case, respect their wishes and donate instead of bringing a gift.

If you are looking for some more gift ideas, here are the best sympathy gift ideas for someone who is grieving. Ultimately, the choice of bringing a gift to the wake or funeral is up to you. But it is a lovely way to show your love and support.

Related: What should I send as a memorial gift instead of flowers?

What should I wear to a wake?

Question: What should I wear? Is the wake a formal event like the funeral?

Answer: Wakes are usually less formal than the funeral service will be. It may be appropriate to wear “business casual” or “church clothes” to the wake, and save the formal attire for the funeral.

In some regions and cultures, boots, blue jeans, and a nice button-up dress shirt would also be acceptable. It really just depends on the culture of the family as well as the area’s societal norms.

If you are unsure, wearing black or other dark colors is the way to go. Here are some tips on what to wear to a funeral, which apply equally well to a wake.

Should I attend the wake if I don’t know the family well?

Question: I knew the deceased but I don’t know their family. Can I still attend the wake?

Answer: It is perfectly fine to go to the wake of a friend, or even an acquaintance or co-worker, even if you did not know their family.

It would be appropriate to introduce yourself to them at some point during the visitation, if you are able to. Likewise, the family will appreciate hearing any fond memories of the deceased you may wish to share. If this makes you uncomfortable, simply introduce yourself and tell the family that you are sorry for their loss.

What do I do if I can’t attend the wake?

Question: I have been invited to the wake, but won’t be able to make it. What should I do?

Answer: If you cannot attend the wake, let the family know. Send the family a letter or card of condolence, letting them know you are sorry for their loss and that your thoughts or prayers are with them. The family will appreciate the gesture.

Attend the funeral if you can, but don’t beat yourself up if you are unable to go. Deaths, wakes and funerals often happen within the space of a single week. So most families understand that it is not always possible for you to attend.

Attending a wake is a very personal decision. If you are not sure if you should go, it helps to keep in mind that this service is really about supporting the family and also about saying goodbye. Remembering this will help you make the right decision.

What is an Irish Wake?

The Irish are famous for their wakes. We’ll let the late comedian Dave Allen (1936-2005) explain it with a sketch from The Dave Allen Show:

A very important part of the Irish way of life is death.

If anybody else in the world dies, that’s the end of it; they’re dead. But in Ireland, when somebody dies, we lay ’em out and watch ’em for a couple days. It’s called a wake.

It’s a great – it’s a party, it’s a sendoff. And the fellow is laid out on the table, and there’s drinking and dancing and all the food you can eat. And all your friends come from all over the place, and they all stand around the wake table and look at you with a glass in their hands, and they say, “Here’s to your health!”

The terrible thing about dying over there is that you miss your own wake. It’s the best day of your life – you’ve paid for everything, and you can’t join in! Mind you, if you did, you’d be drinking on your own.

We hope you found this Q&A about wakes helpful! Let us know your question, thoughts, or additional insights in the comments below.

Read next: 30 Questions About Death, Dying, and Your Legacy

Wake Etiquette & FAQ

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