Visitation vs. Wake for a Funeral: What’s the Difference?

Updated

There’s a lot of confusion and mystery around funeral planning and the different aspects of funerals. Different cultures, religions, and parts of the world have their own practices and beliefs when it comes to funerals and what comes before and after. For some families, it’s common to have a funeral visitation. Others prefer to host a wake before the funeral

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However, though both visitations and wakes are common, it’s not always clear what makes these two practices different. While both practices have many similarities, they’re actually separate things. Understanding what makes them different is the best way to make arrangements for an upcoming funeral.

Both wakes and visitations are about gathering and supporting the family. It’s a time to pay respects to the bereaved family and offer comfort. In this guide, we’ll identify the key differences between visitations and wakes. Though these terms are often used interchangeably, they aren’t actually the same thing. 

Wake and Visitations for Funerals Defined

To begin, let’s define wakes and visitations. Both are times when the bereaved and the deceased’s extended network gather to pay respects and share condolences before the body is buried, cremated, or otherwise laid to final rest. 

These practices date back through generations. Traditionally, these are ways to offer support and compassion to the dead’s loved ones. Let’s have a look at what makes a wake and a visitation unique. 

What’s a wake?

A wake is a funeral practice held at a funeral home or the home of a surviving family member after a loved one’s death. The body is usually present, and friends, family, neighbors, and other people who knew the deceased visit the house to pay respects. Visitors typically spend a moment with the deceased and offer bereavement to the family. In some cultures, a family member sits with the body and there might be cleansing rituals.

Every culture has its own funeral customs, and so do some families. A wake might be simple and standard with just the elements described above, or as unique as the individual it honors. For instance, at an Irish wake, the family honors the life of the deceased, sharing stories and gathering with the community. 

With the body present, it’s a way to say goodbye to a loved one in person. 

What’s a visitation?

A visitation is similar to a wake with one key difference. At a visitation, the body is not present. If it is, the casket is typically closed. Rather than a family home, visitations are more likely to take place at a funeral home or place of worship. 

Like a wake, a visitation is also an informal gathering that’s traditionally held before the funeral, but a visitation can also be part of a funeral. Instead of focusing on the dead, these events are a time to comfort and support the family. If you don’t want to attend the funeral, you might still consider attending the visitation to offer support. 

The family might offer food, drink, and refreshments. There might be prayers or the sharing of memories, or other practices to help comfort the family. 

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6 Main Differences Between a Wake and a Visitation

With these definitions in mind, what are the main differences between a wake and a visitation? There are indeed a lot of similarities between these two practices, especially when it comes to supporting the family. That being said, these are the differences you should know. 

1. The body

The biggest difference between a wake and a visitation is the presence of the body. At a wake, the body is always present. In modern days, the body might be embalmed in preparation for the wake, but this wasn’t always the case. Close friends and family visit with the body, saying their final goodbyes and offering words of support. 

On the other hand, the body isn’t usually present at the visitation. The name refers to guests visiting with the family. Though the body might be present in a closed casket, it is rare for the body to be on display at a visitation. Despite this difference, both wakes and visitations are about honoring the deceased and the bereaved family. 

2. Origin

Another difference is in the origin of wakes vs. visitations. Wakes date back to the earliest days of Anglo-Saxon Christianity. A wake was a watch or vigil held over the body of the dead before burial. In England and Ireland, these were common practice amongst Christians, and it also comes from Celtic traditions in the region. These customs spread to other countries, and they’re still practiced today.

Visitations, on the other hand, are a part of North American grieving customs. Traditionally, a period of visitation happened after the death of a loved one. The community gathered to comfort the family. Though this used to take place at a family member’s home, it has since moved to places of worship or funeral homes. 

3. Timing

The timing of wakes and visitations is also different. Though modern funerals allow a lot of timing flexibility, traditionally there are norms many families follow. It’s not a hard rule, but typically wakes follow the death, while visitations precede the funeral.

Wakes are usually held in the first days after a death. Before the 1800s, bodies weren’t preserved with embalming, so it was natural for a wake and burial or cremation to happen with little delay. Today, wakes still happen soon after death even though emballing is common practice.

Visitations usually occur immediately before the funeral or even during the funeral. In modern times, it’s also not uncommon for there to be a visitation with the family after the funeral as part of the repast. 

4. Location

Where you choose to hold your wake or visitation also differs. Traditionally, both wakes and visitations took place in family homes. Nowadays, wakes may still be at the home of a family member. However, they’re equally common to be hosted at a funeral home.

That being said, most visitations happen outside of the home nowadays. They could be held at a place of worship, funeral home, or the funeral venue. 

5. Duration

Historically, a wake lasts between 24 hours and 3 days. During this time, friends and family visit and take turns keeping watch or holding vigil over the body. In today’s world, a typical wake lasts for a day or a few hours, though some families keep to traditional durations. 

Conversely, visitations are much shorter. These can last anywhere from half an hour to several hours, depending on the family’s wishes. Because they take place as part of the funeral service, they don’t usually last more than a few hours. 

6. Guestlist

Last but not least, the guestlist for wakes and visitations is often different. Wakes are for close friends and family members. Because visiting with the body is a highly personal, emotional practice, this isn’t usually open to those who aren’t very close with the family. 

Visitations, on the other hand, are open to the entire funeral guestlist. Since these are a chance to support the family, all are typically welcome. It’s common funeral etiquette to attend the visitation if you attend the funeral service. 

Should You Attend the Wake, the Visitation, or Both?

Now that you know what to do at a wake or visitation, should you attend either of these types of services? What if there’s a viewing too? There isn’t a black-and-white answer. You need to consider your relationship with the deceased and the bereaved family. 

If you were close with the deceased and their family, it’s appropriate to attend the wake and the visitation, in addition to the funeral. If you’re unable to make it to the funeral, attending the wake is an effective way to show support. 

On the other hand, if you’re not that close to the family, attending the visitation is the best option. The wake is typically for only close friends and family. Luckily, there are other ways to show your support and offer condolences. These practices are all about being there for a family in need, so do your best to attend what you can within reason. 

Understanding the Wake and the Visitation

Because people don’t attend many funerals, it’s normal to have questions about different funeral practices. In North America, the terms "wake" and "visitation" are often used interchangeably. While it’s true these practices share a lot of similarities, there are also key differences that funeral attendees should understand. 

In simple terms, a wake is a chance to hold a vigil over the body and celebrate someone’s legacy. Meanwhile, a visitation is an informal gathering without the body to offer condolences to the bereaved family.

Both are an important part of the grieving process, and they’re still common in modern funeral practices. Whether you’re planning a funeral service or attending one soon, now you know what makes wakes and visitations different. 


Sources:
  1. “History and Customs.” National Funeral Directors Association: Consumer Resources. NFDA.org
  2. “Wake: Religious Rite.” Britannica: Spirituality. Britannica.com

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