The Modern-Day Wake
These days, a wake is considered more of a formal tradition of the past than a way to say goodbye to a loved one. Historically, wakes were held when families cared for the body of a loved one at home (as opposed to a funeral home). There was no central location where bodies were prepared for burial, so families would keep the body in a room in the house for the one or two days it would take to make all the arrangements.
In this context, the wake typically occurred the night before the funeral, with family members holding an all-night prayer vigil over the body of the deceased. Because so many people were gathered under the roof, it was necessary to provide refreshments for everyone, which is where the idea of drinking, eating, and having a kind of low-key celebration came into play.
The Modern-Day Wake
Because few families have the space (or the stomach) to keep a loved one’s body at home until it is time for burial, today’s wakes are more of a ceremonial ritual than an actual vigil. They have become more boisterous and livelier, with a focus on celebrating the deceased’s life instead of mourning their death.
Characteristics of a modern-day wake include:
- Holding an informal gathering at the home of the deceased (or a close relative) the day or night before a funeral.
- Separating the wake from the visitation. If the body will be viewed, it is done at the funeral home in the hours preceding the funeral ceremony.
- Plenty of food and drinks to go around, often long into the night (almost like a vigil).
- Sharing stories of the deceased, especially ones that are humorous or build a sense of camaraderie among the mourners.
- Allowing people to come and go in an “open-house” style setting.
- Wearing casual clothes or an homage to the deceased (everyone in his or her favorite sports team gear, for example) instead of mourning clothes.
While wakes can be one of the most memorable ways to say goodbye to a loved one, it is important to remember that they are not for everyone. Some people may take offense at death being treated lightly, or at the idea of friends gathering in a raucous celebration before the funeral takes place.
Always check with the family before you hold a wake that is open to all, and try not to let the celebration aspect take over the real reason behind the wake in the first place: the loss of someone you all loved, the memory of a life well-lived, and the tribute to a historical tradition many people hold dear.