The Funeral Wake

Also known as “visitation,” “calling hours” and “waking the dead,” the funeral wake is a way to pay respect to the deceased. In the past, the wake was part social and partly practical, as – before funeral parlors and homes were created – the funeral often took place in the home of the deceased. Embalming often was not practiced, so someone needed to sit with the body to keep the bugs, flies, rats, dogs, cats and other curious and carnivorous animals – such as body snatchers – away from the corpse.

In addition, before embalming, there was a real fear that a person might be buried alive. A wake allowed that time before burial to make sure the corpse was, indeed, a corpse.

At this point, the history of the wake varies depending upon cultural and ethnic rituals and religion. Often, the history of the wake is tied to the Irish, where food and spirits and wailing, or keening, and long hours of visitation marked a friend’s passing. Today, however, many wakes are solemn affairs that are held at funeral homes and that include visiting the family and viewing the body before the funeral. Many times, however, family members or friends will hold a separate wake without the body at a private home or even at a bar or restaurant to celebrate the life of the deceased after the funeral.

Here are some tips about holding or attending a wake, or visitation:

  • Be sure to announce visitation hours and place of visitation in the obituary for the deceased. This way, you don’t have to worry about special invitations.
  • However, you may want to make sure that everyone close to the family has been notified about the death and visitation in person (by phone if at all possible to make the notice more personal).
  • Open caskets at a visition mean that the viewers are to pay respects. If, however, you feel you cannot view the body, then you can spare the family even more grief by abstaining. Do, however, pay respects to the family members who remain living.
  • You may find a guest book at a visitation. Sign your full name and address so family members can send a note of appreciation if they choose.
  • Although children often are asked to funerals (via “the family”), sometimes children may add more confusion and fear to the whole affair unless they’ve been accustomed to death in the family. A conversation with young children might be more appropriate than actually having them attend the funeral. Teens, however, should be permitted and encouraged to attend as part of family ritual.
  • If you plan to attend a wake in a private home or other public place, the point is to celebrate the life of the deceased and life in general, not to get so drunk to forget why you’re there in the first place. If you plan to drink heavily, please take a taxi or ask for a designated driver before attending. Leave the car keys at home. The last thing anyone needs after a wake is to plan for your wake.

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