No one likes attending wakes or funerals. It’s difficult to face the death of someone you knew well. Seeing people in mourning is uncomfortable. It’s hard to know what to say to those who are grieving. You may be unsure how to offer condolences.
Note: Whether you're planning a funeral or attending one, the process of loss is complicated. Our post-loss checklist can help you navigate the legal, financial, and personal challenges you might be facing.
Jump ahead to these sections:
- When You Should Attend Just the Wake or Just the Funeral
- When You Should Attend Both the Wake and the Funeral
When grieving the loss of a loved one it can be comforting to be surrounded by friends and family. It’s also comforting to know that your loved one was loved by many people. Showing support, and reminding someone they aren’t alone is important. And it is why you should attend the services for someone who recently died.
You can support your friend or family member by attending a service. But you aren’t sure whether you should attend the wake, or funeral, or both.
There isn’t one correct answer because every situation and relationship is different. Use these as general guidelines, but when in doubt, attend both.
Virtual funeral tip: If you're attending a virtual funeral hosted with a service like GatheringUs, you should attend whichever sessions you're invited to. You may be invited to participate in a private reception room after the main memorial service.
When You Should Attend Just the Wake or Just the Funeral
Someone wise once said that you should attend the wake if you would like to show support to the survivors. You should attend the funeral if you need to grieve yourself. If you find yourself in both camps, attend both the wake and the funeral.
Consider these situations:
If you haven't seen the person if years
Perhaps you recently found out that a person you haven’t seen in years has passed. You may have been close to the person at one point in your life, but you drifted apart. And maybe you don’t know any of the deceased’s family members.
If this is the case, consider attending the funeral. Show your respect for your old friend. Say a prayer or two. And reflect on how that person made a difference in your life.
Attending the wake isn’t necessary. Especially if you didn’t know the deceased’s family well. But attending the wake can communicate to the family how much this friendship meant to you.
If you didn't know the deceased personally
A friend, a neighbor, or a co-worker recently lost a family member. You don’t know the deceased but have a good relationship with the bereaved. To support them, you can go to the wake but not the funeral.
Attending the wake helps express your condolences. And is appropriate for this kind of relationship. Your presence will be appreciated.
If you have young kids
If you have toddlers, try to find a babysitter. If finding a babysitter is not an option, consider sending flowers instead. Toddlers can be difficult to handle at funerals. They can’t help it. They can be distracting, and they often say and do inappropriate things.
Don’t push yourself to attend both the wake and the funeral. Attending one service is enough if you have small children. But make sure you consider your relationship with the deceased and the bereaved.
If you want or need to attend both see if other parents are going. Work with them to figure out a way that you can all attend without your kids being a distraction.
If you have to drive or travel several hours
If both the wake and funeral require you to travel several hours, it is okay to only attend one service. Most people wouldn’t expect you to make the trip twice.
But if you find yourself spending the night at a hotel, you may as well attend both.
If the service is in a different religion
If you feel uncomfortable attending religious ceremonies, consider only attending the wake.
Most of the time, the wake is a time to interact with others who are also in mourning. Religious ceremonies are often more prevalent during funeral services.
Want to know more about religious funeral etiquette, check out our guides to Muslim, Jewish, Christian, Catholic, Hindu, and Buddhist funerals.
If you can't make it to the wake, but can make it to the funeral
Sometimes attending a wake or funeral is a matter of logistics. Perhaps you are unable to attend the wake because you are traveling for work. But maybe you arrive back in town in time to attend a funeral. Even if you did not know the deceased, it is appropriate to attend the funeral in support of your friend.
Even though funerals aren’t social events, try to connect with the person you are there to support. It can help them to know you attended. Don’t make a big deal of it, though. A quick hug or signature in the guest book is enough. Keep the focus on the departed.
If the deceased was close to your child
Your child has lost a coach or teacher. Or your child’s friend lost a parent. In this scenario, consider attending the funeral with your child. Show your child that when a person dies, it's important to show respect.
Your child will learn what to expect from a funeral. And they will feel more comfortable attending services when they are older. You may want to let them read a children's book on death and grieving before or after the service if you think it's necessary.
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When You Should Attend the Both the Wake and the Funeral
You should attend both the wake and the funeral for family members and very close friends. If you're a member of the immediate family, people will want to express condolences to you. Even if it's difficult, being there is important.
Here are some other scenarios that may help you decide when to attend both services.
If you knew the deceased personally
If you are a close friend with someone who lost an immediate family member, attend both the wake and the funeral. You may even offer help to your friend. You can bring them a cup of coffee or help serve sandwiches.
Your friend may not be able to spend time with you because they must host the event. But they will appreciate your support.
If you were an extended family member
Yes, you should attend the visitation and the funeral of an aunt, uncle, or cousin. Whether you were close to the extended family member or not, this is your time to support your family.
If you are an ex-spouse of the deceased or their family
The short answer is “yes.” If you were close enough to get married, it's appropriate that you would attend the wake and the funeral of your ex.
There may be some exceptions to this. If you have a poor relationship with your ex-spouse’s family, it may be inappropriate for you to attend the wake. You can attend the funeral but do so unobtrusively.
If your ex-spouse remarried, and you attend the wake and the funeral, you may consider sitting out of view.
If your attendance at either event will be a distraction, consider opting out of both.
If you're uncomfortable thinking about going
Very few people are comfortable attending visitations and funerals. You aren’t the only one unsure of what to say or how to act. But before you opt-out and send flowers with a generic sympathy message, please reconsider.
But, at the same time, if attendance is completely out of your comfort zone and will cause unwanted thoughts or behavior, you may want to skip out. Instead, send a personalized message or sympathy gift to the deceased loved ones and follow up with another kind gesture in a few months.
If you're grieving from another recent death
What if you recently lost your mother, and then your good friend lost her mother a month later? Do you get a pass from attending both services because you are suffering from your loss?
Even if your grief is still fresh, try to find the strength to attend the funeral and the wake. It will be difficult, and the services may cause you to cry. That’s ok.
If you still don't feel ready, use the same advice as above. Try your best to send a personalized note or message and follow up in a few weeks. Send a homemade meal, babysit for free, or up the family to check on them.
Showing Up When It Means the Most
You may not know how important it is to have the people you care about around when you are grieving. Showing support during a wake, funeral, or both is vital.
Chances are, it will be noticed if you don’t attend the wake or funeral of someone important. Even though attending a wake or funeral is difficult, you should try to do it. By attending, you're providing much-needed love and support to the bereaved.