When a person passes away, their loved ones will usually attend a funeral service followed by a wake. But what is a wake and why are these gatherings called wakes? Here, you’ll find out more about the origin of the word and what it means in relation to the funeral in different countries.
Why is it called a wake?
The word wake in relation to death originally meant a ‘watch’, ‘vigil’ or ‘guard’. It was used to refer to a prayer vigil, usually held late at night or overnight, where mourners would keep watch over their dead until they were buried. A wake often included prayers and the comforting of relatives, as well as a chance to see and interact with the person one last time. Some wakes would also include feasting and merriment after the vigil was over.
The word can also have different meanings depending where you are in the world. In the UK, a wake has come to mean the social gathering which takes place almost immediately after the funeral and burial or cremation. It can also be known as a funeral reception. Mourners will gather back at the person’s house, or at a venue elsewhere, to reminisce, honour the deceased person’s life and have some refreshments. It is a relatively informal, social occasion, quite different to the formality of the funeral service.
However, in the U.S., a wake is often used to describe the viewing or visitation of the recently departed person. This is where loved ones visit the deceased person, who may be laid in an open casket in a funeral home or even their own home. They visit in order to say their goodbyes and share their feelings one last time. The visitation or wake may even involve prayers or other rituals and usually happens one or two evenings before the actual funeral takes place.
What is a wake funeral?
Not everyone wants a traditional or religious funeral service. A person can leave behind instructions for funeral arrangements, which can be very helpful to the loved ones tasked with planning a funeral.
In these instructions, it may state that the person would prefer to have a wake instead of a funeral service in a church. They may still choose to be cremated or buried, but not have a formal service. Instead, they’ll want friends and family to celebrate their life and comfort each other at a wake instead. This can be known as a wake funeral.
What happens at a wake?
Unlike many funeral services, a wake or funeral reception in the UK is far less formal and structured. Mourners will be given details of a venue to head to after the ceremony, often a social club, church hall, local pub or even a family house.
Here, friends, family, colleagues and loved ones of the deceased person will gather after the ceremony and burial or cremation. The purpose of a wake in modern times is to share memories and stories of the lost loved one. It can be seen as a celebration of the person’s life, as well as an opportunity for family and friends to comfort each other in grief.
During a wake, there will often be refreshments. Mourners may have a drink (depending on their culture, traditions or religion) and help themselves to food from a buffet. The person’s favourite food or drinks may even be served, which can be a very nice touch.
The chance to have some refreshments can actually be very important after a long, difficult day of funeral arrangements. Sadness and grief can be very tiring, and many people will be very glad of the chance to rest and have some refreshments in the company of loved ones.
Wakes can of course be very sombre occasions, but they can also be surprisingly upbeat. This is because after the stress of a very difficult day - one which many loved ones will be dreading - it feels good to let off some steam. It can also be comforting to be around family members and to share positive, inspiring stories which celebrate a life alongside grieving its loss.
A wake usually lasts a few hours. Guests will gather and deliver their condolences to the relatives of the deceased, before food is served. Funerals can be exhausting and emotional, so some mourners may be glad when the wake is finished and guests have gone home. However, other wakes may go on late until the evening, depending on the venue and the mood of the mourners.
Do you have to wear black to a wake?
It can sometimes be difficult to know the etiquette for funerals and wakes. While it is usually advisable to wear black or dark colours to a funeral - unless specifically told otherwise - wakes tend to be more casual, social occasions. If you haven’t been able to attend the funeral itself, or the person is having a wake funeral instead, what should you wear?
The golden rule in these tricky situations is to be respectful. The occasion is about the deceased person and their loved ones, not about you. So ideally, you should blend into the background and fit in with the other mourners.
You don’t necessarily have to wear black to a wake, but you should choose dark or low-key colours if you aren’t sure what the dress code is. Keep patterns plain and simple, and avoid clothing with festive or novelty designs. While wakes can be more relaxed than formal funeral services, it’s still best to keep clothing relatively smart. Anything too casual could look out of place.
The most important thing is to be as respectful as possible of any specific wishes set out by the deceased or their family. This could take the form of a request for all mourners to wear bright colours, for example, or a request for an altogether more a traditional and sombre affair. If specific instructions have been left by the departed, it’s respectful for mourners to follow them.
If you still aren’t sure what to wear to a wake, it could be a good idea to speak to friends or family who are also attending. Find out what they are wearing and get some advice. After all, it’s better to ask than to get it wrong and risk feeling uncomfortable or offending anyone.
Can you plan your own wake?
While some people won’t want to make decisions about what happens after they die, others may take comfort from making their own plans known ahead of passing. This can ensure family members and friends can carry out the specific final wishes of a loved one, making sure instructions are followed to the letter. This includes the intricate details of both a funeral service and a wake.
Taking out a pre-paid funeral plan with a reputable provider will allow you not only to pay in advance for the services in your chosen plan therefore easing the financial burden on loved ones, but also ensures your wishes are recorded and clearly outlined.