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What Is a Wake?

by Linnea Crowther

A wake is one of the ceremonies some people perform after a death. It’s often used interchangeably with visitation or viewing, though historically it was a different kind of ceremony from our modern-day visitation.  

In current practice, “wake” is a term used to describe several different types of gatherings that may happen in addition to a funeral. They are typically less formal than the funeral service and often include refreshments and conversation. The wake presents an opportunity to comfort the family in a more relaxed setting than the funeral service. This has evolved from an ancient practice of sitting vigil after a person’s death.  

The Wake in History

In some ancient societies, especially in Ireland and other parts of Northern Europe, the wake was a custom practiced in the days between a death and a burial. People would sit vigil with the dead body, praying and watching over it throughout the day and night. This accounts for the term “wake,” which comes from the same word root as “watch.” 


One reason for this vigil was superstition. Ancient people feared that an evil spirit could take possession of a body shortly after death. They stayed with the body at all times in an effort to prevent this. Another reason to hold vigil over the body was a practical one: rats and other vermin would be interested in the body, and the people watching over the body could keep them away. 

Some people believe that another reason for the ancient wake was to confirm that a person was actually dead before burial. Without our modern technology, it was sometimes harder to determine if a person was dead or simply in a very deep state of unconsciousness. To prevent live burial, it’s supposed that ancient people waited several days before burial and kept an eye on the presumably dead person.  

There’s disagreement as to whether this last point is really true or just an assumption based on the similarity between the word “wake” and the possibility of the presumably dead person “waking up.” Either way, it’s not true that the wake is named because of fears of a person waking up after being buried. The word wake, as used in death ceremonies, is more closely related to watching than to waking up. 

Evolution of the Wake

As time went on and Christianity took hold in Northern Europe, ancient superstitions began to fade, and evil spirits were less of a reason to watch over a dead body. However, people had found over the years that there was value in sitting together as preparations were being made for burial. It was an opportunity to share favorite memories of the lost loved one, as well as comforting each other and sharing in the mourning experience. 

The wake became strongly associated with Irish culture, where it was a sort of celebration of life that took place in the family home prior to the funeral. Some wakes were more religiously focused, while others centered on food, drink, and merriment in remembrance of the deceased. 

As many Irish immigrants came to the U.S. in the 19th century, the tradition of the wake took root here as well.  

Today’s Wakes

Today, a wake can be any of a few different types of ceremony. One is essentially the same thing as the Irish wake that traveled to the U.S. more than 100 years ago. It’s a gathering of family and friends that takes place between the death and the funeral. 

Sometimes this gathering is called a viewing or a visitation. If the body is present in a casket, it may be called a viewing, and it offers mourners the closure of seeing the deceased one last time. A visitation is focused on comforting the family. They may be greeting guests in a receiving line, or in a less formal visitation, family may be arrayed around the room, where guests can come talk to them. Either of these gatherings can be referred to as a wake, and they often take place at the funeral home or wherever the funeral will be held. 

Another use of the word wake describes a gathering that takes place after the visitation/viewing, funeral service, and burial. More like a reception, this type of wake might be held in a church hall, at the family home, or at a local bar or restaurant. Finger foods or a meal may be served, and some families will also include alcohol at this gathering. 

Some Catholic families may have a wake that is a short service prior to the funeral in which a priest says prayers and recites scriptures. This may be called a rosary service instead. 

Wake vs. Funeral

Regardless which definition of wake is used, it’s not the same thing as a funeral or memorial service. A funeral or memorial service is generally a more formal gathering, with a celebrant who guides a service that includes scripture readings, eulogies, music, and sometimes a homily or sermon. In contrast, a wake is more freeform, with multiple small conversations taking place rather than everyone listening to one person speak at a time. There may be toasts or prayers offered to the whole room at a wake, but they’re not the sole focus of the gathering. 

In rare cases, a family may choose to have just a wake, skipping the more formal funeral service. More often, a wake is one of several ceremonies that take place after a death. It’s typical in the U.S. to start with a wake, viewing, or visitation, followed by a funeral or memorial service and a burial or inurnment. 

Close friends and family will often attend all of the services, from wake through burial. Sometimes the funeral and/or burial might be designated as private, for the family only, but the wake is generally a ceremony to which anyone is invited. It’s a good opportunity to pay your respects even if you weren’t a close friend to the deceased or their family. 

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