What to know about wakes and funeral services

  • Wakes are meant to be less formal gatherings for sharing the company of those who all loved the person who died and memories of them.

  • Depending on what kind of a mood you want to set, you should consider the location, music, refreshments, and decorations.

  • Many families choose to place the casket near the entrance, so that condolences can come first, then socializing.

  • The invitation list for the wake does not need to be the same as that for the funeral.

Planning a wake for a loved one can be difficult, both practically and emotionally. You likely have a lot to attend to at the moment, and you’re still dealing with the burden of saying goodbye to someone you loved. So take it one step at a time, and take comfort in the fact that planning this celebration is a fitting way to honor the memory of the person you’re grieving.

What is a wake? 

A wake, also sometimes called a vigil or a visitation, is a gathering or celebration held before the funeral. Unlike the more formal funeral service, a wake is a gathering with less of a set format, and it is not typical to have a designated person leading the event. Instead, it is a time for friendly, heartfelt conversation and social interaction, and for saying final goodbyes.

The wake is sometimes held the afternoon or evening before the funeral, or it can be on the same day, just a couple of hours beforehand. Wakes usually involve an open casket, allowing friends and family to come pay their respects. 

Though it has roots in Catholic tradition, a modern wake need not have any religious affiliation—often, it is an informal gathering meant to hold space for sharing stories and memories. There is no one way to hold a wake, and the event will look different depending on culture, family tradition, or personal preference. 

Where is a wake held? 

The most traditional way is to hold the wake in your loved one’s home, where an intimate group of family and friends are invited to bring food and drinks to share. The home might be decorated with flowers, photographs, and/or objects that were special to your loved one. 

Despite this tradition, it is now more common for modern wakes to be held at a funeral home. In most cases, the funeral home will be happy to accommodate the gathering. This can be a great option if you are feeling overwhelmed by getting everything planned and in order, as the funeral home will take on most of the arrangements.

The location you decide on for the wake will have a big influence on the general mood of the event. In some cultures, wakes are lively, upbeat celebrations of life, while in others, they have a somber, introspective tone. The choice of live music, whether somber or lively, will play a big part in the general ambiance of the event. Though it is by no means a requirement, many families do choose to hire musicians, which can be coordinated with the funeral home. You and your family may have a specific group in mind already, or you can ask the funeral home if they have musicians that they work with that fit your budget. 

There is no “correct” way to hold a wake; it will depend on what feels right for you and your family.

Decorations are another element to consider. Flowers are always a great option, as are printed photographs. Some families also find it nice to have a slideshow of images of their loved one that can play on a television screen or a projector. If you’re planning the wake at a funeral home, it’s a good idea to check in with them beforehand to see what kind of accommodations they have for presenting a slideshow or displaying photographs. 

Planning a wake service 

When drafting your guest list, keep in mind that it does not necessarily have to be the same as that for the funeral––you may decide to invite some guests to one event and not the other. Make sure to clearly state the time, date, and location of the wake in the invitation. Wakes can last anywhere from two to six hours. 

Usually, light refreshments are served, perhaps the favorite foods of your loved one. If you are holding the wake at the person’s home, it is common practice to ask family members and friends who will be in attendance to bring food. If a funeral home is hosting, they often have caterers that they work with, and will usually be able to accommodate almost any special request. 

Whether or not you will be providing alcohol is another thing to consider. Wakes originally come from the Irish Catholic tradition, in which drinking beer and whiskey is an integral part of the event. That being said, at modern wakes, which have diverged much from their origins, alcohol is by no means a necessity. Some families may consider drinking inappropriate, while some may prefer to serve light drinks in order to raise a toast to their loved one.

Wherever the wake takes place, the casket, which can be open or closed, is generally on display near the entrance, where immediate family members line up. The casket can be decorated with floral arrangements and decorative cloth. Guests approach the casket to pay their respects, and then express their condolences to the family. After guests pass through the receiving line, they can mingle and socialize. 

Again, there is no “correct” way to hold a wake, and it will depend on what feels right for you and your family. But whichever way you decide to do it, it’s a great idea to hand off as many tasks as you can to close friends and less immediate family members, so that you can give yourself more space to feel and process all of the emotions you may be feeling. Remember, your friends are here for you during this time.

After losing a loved one, it might feel difficult or overwhelming to think about logistical matters like this. But as hard as it may seem, a wake is a special time for family and friends to come together and share memories about your loved one. Of course, grief is an individual journey for everyone, but this shared moment of mourning can be a very meaningful and healing symbol of the joy and love you experienced together during their life.

You may be eligible for free bereavement support. Empathy can help with everything from funeral planning to estate administration, with step-by-step guidance and real-time expert support. Many people get free premium access to Empathy as a benefit with their life insurance claim. We partner with New York Life, Guardian Life Insurance Company, Bestow, Lemonade, and other leading carriers. When you make your life insurance claim, talk to your representative about whether Empathy is a benefit they offer.