While people often associate the term “wake” with formal traditional funeral services, this gathering can have the style that you prefer. The idea of planning everything for a wake and funeral might seem daunting. But you’ll find that these events often go hand-in-hand, giving family and friends a chance to spend time together.


What is a Wake?

A wake is a gathering for family members and close friends to meet to celebrate and share memories. The traditional time to hold a wake is before a funeral service, but some families prefer to have the event shortly after the service – often known as a funeral reception.


The term “wake” has its roots in religious ceremonies that tie back to the Catholic and Celtic traditions in Ireland. In the past, the tradition was to hold a sitting vigil, often in the family’s home, after a person passed away. People practiced this custom between the death and burial, with loved ones sitting awake through all hours of the day and night.


Now, a wake can have a religious tone if the family desires, but it’s more common for people to plan a wake without religious ceremonies. You might choose to call this event a funeral viewing or funeral visitation instead. Don’t worry about the terminology – it’s better to focus on the significance of the event. Look for ways you can adapt to fit the culture of the person you are honoring.


In our modern time, a wake describes different types of gatherings that happen in conjunction with the funeral. Typically, it is less formal and includes conversation among family members. You might serve appetizers and drinks to keep people fed, so they linger for a few hours.


Wake vs. Funeral

A funeral often involves attendees listening to a program. For example, you might invite people to attend a service in a funeral home, chapel, or event center where people arrange chairs in a presentation setting. Selected family members share stories and memories in front of the group, with other elements included in the program – such as music or readings.


While funerals, memorials, and life celebrations often have a planned order of events, a wake is more relaxed in nature. You can schedule a time and place for loved ones to meet before or after a funeral. People want the opportunity to talk and offer comfort. Typical venues for a wake might be a family home, church hall, or a local restaurant or bar.


Instead of deciding if you want a wake vs. funeral, you might schedule both or neither – it’s up to you.


Planning a Wake

Now that you understand the difference between a wake and a funeral, it’s up to you to decide if you want to hold an informal gathering. Luckily, planning a wake tends to be simpler than scheduling a formal funeral. All you need is a venue and caterer to help with refreshments if desired. There’s no need to coordinate a program or presentation if you want to keep it a relaxed event.


Here are a few things you need to know about planning a wake:

  • Decide who to invite: If you hold a wake, then the service is usually designed as a private event. You might choose to invite family and close friends, giving everyone an opportunity to greet the family and share their condolences. Guests might attend the wake, funeral, or both.
  • Pick a Venue: Remember that this service is a casual gathering. Choose a location large enough to host the group. Common venues include pubs, church halls, a family home, restaurants, sports clubs, hotel meeting rooms, or social clubs. Call around to find an available location, and make sure the venue is wheelchair accessible and has all the necessary facilities for the group.
  • Consider Your Budget: If you want to keep costs low, then keep the group small and ask family and friends to bring food to share. If you aren’t worried about the costs, then go all-out with the person’s favorite drinks and appetizers.
  • Order Food and Drinks: The benefit of holding the wake at a bar or restaurant is that the venue can provide the food and drinks. Or, you can cater the refreshments if holding the event at another location.
  • Memory Activities: You don’t have to provide entertainment, but some families like to have a way to share memories of the loved one. For example, you might set out memory jars where people can write their thoughts on note cards. Or have a display with a wall or book of memories. Other options include a video presentation, lantern display, or balloon release.


The best approach is to keep it simple. This example of a wake is a casual gathering of friends and family to celebrate and honor the memories of your loved one.


Attending a Wake

Your presence at a viewing or a wake is a way to offer your love and condolences to the family. Don’t assume that there will be ceremonial activities or religious undertones just because it is called a “wake.” More commonly, a wake is a time when the family spends time visiting with others who want to share their love.


Etiquette Do’s and Don’ts at a Wake

Here are a few things to keep in mind if you are attending a wake:

  • Attend the event, if you can: Your presence will mean a lot to the family. You don’t have to stay long, and you might only have a few minutes to talk to the family directly. If you’ve been invited, then it means that the family wants you to participate in the event.
  • Talk to the family: Share your condolences, thank the family for the invitation, and show them that you are there to support them. Remember that the family will have a lot of people to talk to, so it’s ok to keep it short. Often, friends and family will linger at the wake to speak to other attendees.
  • Choose tasteful clothing: A wake is less formal than a funeral, so you usually don’t need to wear black. Think business casual, such as a dress – or trousers, a collared shirt, and a sports jacket.


As you can see, a “wake” tends to be more of a catch-all term in modern funeral planning. The most important focus is that you have a dedicated gathering for friends and family to meet together before or after a funeral.