What Is a Wake, and Why Do We Have Them?

Laura Broad[1]

Laura Broad

Money Savings Advice What is a wake

When a loved one passes away, it’s almost a given that there will be a funeral service. But the celebration of a life well-lived doesn’t have to end there. This guide answers some common questions about wakes, including what they are and what you can expect to happen at a wake.

What Is a Wake?

A wake, or a funeral reception as it’s sometimes known, is a chance to pay respects outside of a formal funeral setting. It’s typically a place where family and friends can get together to share stories, memories and celebrate the life of someone who has passed away.

Wakes are slightly different depending on where you are in the world. In the UK, a wake is a social gathering held after the funeral service. It’s a chance to meet up in a more relaxed setting - perhaps a pub, function room or someone’s house - and pay respects together.

In the US, a wake can also involve the viewing of the deceased. Wakes in the US often take place a day (or even several days) before the funeral service to give people a chance to say their final goodbyes in person.

Why Is It Called a Wake?

A wake is actually an old religious rite thought to be of Celtic roots. Back then, it was tradition to watch over the dead before they were buried and pray for them. The word ‘wake’ comes from this old word to ‘watch’. This practice of sitting with the dead is still practised in some parts of Ireland and Scotland where the tradition lives on.

What’s the Difference Between a Wake and a Funeral?

A funeral is a more formal affair than a wake. A funeral will likely be led by an officiant - often a priest, minister, rabbi or other religious leaders - and will involve certain rites and rituals.

A wake is a more informal, unstructured setting where the people near and dear to the deceased can comfort each other and celebrate the life of the deceased together. People who did not attend the funeral can also join the wake to pay their respects.

What Happens at a Wake?

Again, this is another area that is up to the family. Wakes can be emotional and sombre occasions, or they can be the complete opposite. You may find that the wake is surprisingly upbeat, as people share fond stories and memories of the person you all loved.

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Organising a Wake

Some people see organising a wake as a welcome way to make themselves feel useful after the death of a loved one, but it can be quite overwhelming for others. If you’re the latter, your funeral director may be able to offer advice. Friends and family can also be drafted in to help with the preparations. Here’s what you’ll need to think about when planning a wake.

Wake Venue

Typically, a wake in the UK will take place in a venue like a restaurant, pub, community hall, or someone’s house. Some people find it comforting to hold the wake in a place that meant a lot to the person who has passed away, or even in their home. Your funeral director may be able to suggest some options if you’re finding it hard to pick a venue.

Who to Invite to the Wake

A wake can be opened up to the wider community to give people who couldn’t attend the funeral a chance to pay their respects. If you want a small, quiet affair with only close family, that’s fine too. Do what is best for you and your loved ones.

Wake Food and Refreshments

It’s common to provide food and refreshments at a wake, but you don’t have to. You could always ask guests to bring a plate of something to the wake and put on a buffet that way. Some venues will be able to provide catering, so double check when you book.

Wake Entertainment

It’s a bit jarring to think about entertainment at such a serious affair, but including small elements can help bring people together and create fond memories to look back on.

  • Music. A playlist or CD of your loved one’s favourite music might be a nice touch. You could also have guests add their own tracks that remind them of the person.
  • Memory tree, wall or jar. Set out some tags or note cards and ask people to write down their fondest memories. Not only can this give you something happy to look back on in the future, but can offer guests a little bit of closure too.
  • A photo wall or slideshow. Put together photos you have, and ask others to send any over to you too, and create a collage of photos of happy times to reminisce.

These suggestions may not be appropriate for everyone. Adapt the wake to fit the culture, religion and wishes of the person whose life you are celebrating.

Attending a Wake

A wake may be a less formal occasion than a funeral, but you may still have questions over the right wake etiquette. Here are some common questions and answers about wakes.

What Do You Wear to a Wake?

Whatever you decide to wear, be respectful. Remember that many guests will be coming straight from the funeral. A smart shirt and trousers or a skirt is usually a good call, unless you’ve been told otherwise by the hosts.

What Do You Say at a Wake?

Showing up at a wake will probably mean a lot to the family of the deceased. While you’re there, express your condolences and offer support to the family. The wake is also a good place to share fond memories, stories and anecdotes about the person who has died.

What Do You Take to a Wake?

While there typically is no expectation to take anything to a wake, check the wishes of the family. For example, you may be told that a charitable donation would be preferred over flowers. If you’re not sure what the family has requested, check with the funeral director.

How Can Money Savings Advice Help You With a Funeral Plan?

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Money Savings Advice Author Laura Broad

Laura Broad

Laura is a professional content writer and learning designer, passionate about empowering people through straightforward, jargon-free content. When she's not reading or writing about all things personal finance, you can find her in the gym, barbell in hand.

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