Wakes, viewings, and visitations are all part of the sometimes confusing lexicon associated with funerals – but what exactly do you do at a wake? Who goes to a wake versus a funeral, and what will happen?

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What Is a Wake?

In plain language, a wake is an intimate gathering hosted by the family of the deceased in advance of a funeral service. Nowadays, wakes are typically held at a funeral home or house of worship – sometimes the same day as the funeral, sometimes the day before. The body, often in an open casket, is present at wakes and viewings. The body may be present – or not – at a visitation.

While there are likely to be slight variations, the purpose of the gatherings is the same: to console family and loved ones and to say goodbye to the deceased. Guests tend to be extended family, close friends or colleagues. It’s an opportunity to gather, to be with one another, and to connect with others who knew and cared about the person who has died. There’s comfort in that.

Wake: What to Say

This is usually the scariest part, wondering what to do at a wake, viewing or visitation. The nature of each event varies. Some are casual, others are formal affairs that might include prayers by clergy. Best to take your cue from the family. If there is a receiving line, greet family members and offer condolences. And make your condolences count. Instead of pulling out clichés like “He’s in a better place” or “I understand how you feel,” feel free to share a short anecdote about the deceased. Also, be sure to sign the guest-book before you leave.

And, remember too, that grieving doesn’t end on the day of a funeral. It’s a journey that zigs and zags and can last for months, years, or a lifetime. There’s a reason it’s called a healing process. If you are close to the surviving family, stay in touch – and help that healing happen.

Wake: What to Wear

What to wear to a wake, viewing, or visitation is essentially what you would wear to a funeral. In other words, no glam and no flash but clothing that reflects the somber nature of the event. Black is no longer a requirement but common sense is. It’s also okay to wear work clothes if you are attending an after-work event; no need to go home and change. Stick with the basics and you’ll be fine.

Wake: What to Expect

An obituary or death notice will notify mourners about time and place of the event. If it’s family-only, the obituary will spell that out. In the absence of an obituary, contact the funeral director for details. In the past, gatherings like these took place at the family’s home and could last several days. Today, not so much. Wakes, viewings, and visitations usually last two hours and guests come and go as they would at an open house.

The “visit” doesn’t have to last long; it can be as brief as 15 minutes. What’s important to the family is that you cared enough to attend. It’s also perfectly fine to attend the funeral service and forgo the pre-funeral events.

Wake: Where to Sit

These events are more about standing than sitting. Essentially, they provide an opportunity to write a remembrance in a scrapbook or share a memory with family. Sometimes clergy is present, though often not. If you would like to view the body, do so – but know that it is not mandatory.

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