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After a death: what happens at a wake

When a person dies, family and friends often gather together in the hours or days before the funeral to view the body, share memories of the deceased, and lend comfort and support to each other in their grief. This custom, known as a wake, is based on a tradition from ancient times, when family members actually remained with the body, keeping a hopeful watch for any sign of life.

Modern wakes vary from culture to culture. In the U.S., the body of the deceased is typically displayed in an open casket during the wake, which usually takes place in a funeral home. Alternatively, the wake may be held in the family home, with or without the body present. When attending a wake in the family home, guests often bring food to share with the others or leave with the family.

What should I do or say?

When you enter the room where the wake is taking place, a registry book may be available for you to sign. Be sure to include your full name and address to make it easy for the family in case they wish to send a note. Remembrance cards may be available near the registry book, as well as envelopes for guests who wish to make memorial donations to the deceased's favorite charity or church.

If the body is present in an open casket, close family members will probably be standing or sitting nearby. Greet them and offer your sympathy in a way that is natural for you. Don't worry about finding the perfect words to say – your presence is what matters.

A simple "I'm sorry for your loss," is all it takes to convey your sympathy. A sincere comment about one of the finer qualities of the deceased – "She was one of the kindest people I've ever known," for example – will tell the family that you truly share in their loss.

What about viewing the body?

Viewing the body is a way to honor the deceased and to break through the denial that often surrounds death, and it can bring a sense of closure to the proceedings. For some people, though, the thought of viewing the body may give rise to uncomfortable feelings, particularly if they have never attended a wake before.

Unless you are one of those people and you believe that you will not be able to manage your uncomfortable feelings, approach the casket and silently stand or kneel, according to custom, for a moment or two. You may touch the body if you wish, but you are not expected to do so. See Death of a loved one: what will viewing the body be like? for further information.

A time of mourning and celebration

The wake may center around a religious service incorporating prayers or readings from sacred texts, according to the beliefs of the deceased and the family, or it may be more of a social gathering.

In either case, the modern wake, like the traditional Irish wake, generally combines elements of both mourning and celebration. Family and friends will gather to simultaneously share their sorrow and celebrate the life of the deceased.

Aside from the few standard practices mentioned here, there really is no "typical" wake. Even more than funeral services, wakes are personalized rituals, reflective of the personality and spirit of the deceased, as well as community, church, and family customs.

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Further sources of information

You may find our other articles in the Funerals: everything you need to know section helpful too.

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