Wake Etiquette 101: What to Do (and Not Do) at a Wake

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A wake is one of the many ceremonies or rituals a family may choose to have after a loved one has passed away. Cultures all over the world have wakes. The purpose of a wake is to bring family, friends, and the community at large together to celebrate the life of the deceased.

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If you’ve never attended a wake before, check out some of these basic etiquette tips.

What to Say to the Family at a Wake

It can be difficult to know how to offer condolences to a grieving family. The overall mood of a wake will, to a certain extent, guide your choices. Some wakes are almost indistinguishable from viewings or visitations. They are often held in funeral homes and the family might be in a receiving line. 

Simply wait to go through the receiving line and offer brief but sincere condolences. For example, you could say something like, “I’m sorry for your loss. Michael was such a special man. He was one of the kindest people I’ve ever had the pleasure of knowing.”

You can talk to family members about the good work the deceased did in the community. You can also share humorous anecdotes about them. You shouldn’t prepare a stand-up comedy routine about the deceased, but it’s okay (and even expected) to bring a little levity to the situation. Laughter and tears can (and should!) both have room to exist in balance.

Many wakes have a more relaxed atmosphere. A wake that takes place in a private residence can be a lot more informal. Several family members will usually be in attendance to greet people who have come to pay respects. 

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Bring a Card, Flowers, or Another Appropriate Gift

Wakes can be held in a private residence in the days leading up to a funeral. They can also be held at a funeral home and usually immediately precede the funeral ceremony.

What you should bring is dependent on the location. Generally speaking, you send flowers to a funeral, like this arrangement of fresh-cut flowers. Don’t bring them with you — you don’t want to place undue stress on the family of the deceased. Sending flowers in advance allows funeral home staff to ensure they get to the right location.

This is also the best practice to follow for a wake. Sympathy cards, like this simple card, or any other sympathy gifts, like a gourmet snack box, are also best sent to the family by some other means and not brought to the funeral home.

You may bring flower arrangements that are suitable for the home if the wake is held at the home of the deceased. Wreaths or other graveside arrangements should be sent to the funeral home.

More so than flowers, practical gifts are valued at wakes. A wake may last a few hours, or the deceased’s family may welcome mourners to their home over the course of a few days prior to the funeral. Bring edible gifts like casseroles, sandwiches, baked goods, or fruit baskets so the family doesn’t have to worry about food. They may even share it with guests. 

Cards are also a great thing to bring to a wake at home, especially when you write a heartfelt message celebrating the deceased. This is a way to help the family feel supported and uplifted even after the wake has passed.

Dress in Clean, Suitable Clothing

Wakes that are held in funeral homes are often followed immediately by the funeral itself. If you are attending both ceremonies, it’s best to dress in funeral-appropriate clothing. Clothes you would wear to a church service or business meeting are an excellent choice.

This means clothing with a conservative cut that isn’t too tight and doesn’t reveal too much skin. Funeral clothing should also be black or an otherwise dark, muted color. Navy blue, charcoal gray, and dark brown may be acceptable if you don’t have anything solid black.

Wakes in private homes are a bit more relaxed with regard to dress code. However, you do want to dress in a manner that is respectful and appropriate. You don’t have to wear all black, but stick to neutral, muted colors and avoid prints and patterns. Dark colors like black, navy blue, and gray are acceptable, but you can even incorporate lighter shades like beige and certain pastels.

If you work in an office with a business casual dress code, you would be able to go straight from work to a home wake. This means women could wear slacks and a blouse or a dress. Men could wear slacks and a button-down shirt or even khakis and a polo. It’s less important to adhere to a strict dress code than it is to wear clothes that are clean, neat and presentable.

If you're still stuck on what to wear, check out our guide on what to wear to a wake.

Who Should Attend a Wake

Unless it is otherwise specified in an obituary or other notice, wakes follow similar rules to visitations or viewings. They’re usually open to the public as long as they’re held at a funeral home.

If you learn about the wake through an obituary or online announcement, you can usually assume a wake at a funeral home is open for anyone to stop in. Coworkers, community members, and casual acquaintances should be welcomed.

Wakes held at personal homes are a little trickier because the word is often spread a little more informally. Let’s say you see a Facebook post or obituary that mentions a wake but doesn’t explicitly mention an address, It’s best not to come without a direct invitation.

If you feel like there’s ambiguity, you can always reach out to a close friend or family member of the deceased. If you send a quick text message offering to bring by some food or a card for the family, you may find yourself on the receiving end of an invitation. Still unsure? Read our article on how to decide if you should attend a wake or the funeral.

How Long Should You Stay at a Wake

The length of time you spend at a wake will depend on its location and on your relationship to the family of the deceased. Wakes at funeral homes usually only last a few hours and are typically immediately followed by the funeral service. If you’re attending the funeral, you may come to the wake at any time and stay for the funeral. Wakes don’t have a set agenda or program, so there is no need to arrive at the starting time. Stopping by the wake at any point during the hours listed is fine.

You can make a brief appearance for 10 or 15 minutes if you just want to drop off food or a card and offer your condolences if the wake is at a private home. However, you can also settle in and stay longer. The closer you are to the family of the deceased, the more comfortable you’ll likely be when you choose to stay.

Brightening the mood of the deceased's family with positive stories is a great way to spend that time, but every wake is a unique, personalized experience. You’ll need to use your best judgment to decide how long you should stay. 

Engaging with the Body

Wakes were originally designed for family members to sit vigil over a body after a person died. These days, the deceased isn’t always present during a wake. For example, it would be very unusual for a body to be present in a private home. However, the body of the deceased is usually on display in an open casket in the room for wakes held in funeral homes. 

Though you won’t be asked to keep vigil over the body, most people go to wakes with the express intention of interacting with the deceased. The main intent of the wake beyond comforting the family is to pay your respects to the deceased. You may go up and say a silent prayer. You may say goodbye. You may hold the deceased’s hand or simply observe. The hope is that this interaction brings a sense of closure to mourners who may otherwise be in denial.

As wakes have evolved, so have attitudes toward death. In the early days of wakes as a form of ritual, people were much more pragmatic about death. In modern times, we are much more culturally insulated from death than we used to be. As a result, many people feel uncomfortable about being so close to the deceased, especially if it is someone they knew in life. Paying your respects to the body is customary but you don’t have to force yourself to do it if it’s uncomfortable or scary for you. Focus instead on expressing your condolences to the family and know that you can get closure in the way that works best for you.

What Not To Do at a Wake

A lot of the finer points of wake etiquette hinge on where the wake is located. Wakes in funeral homes have a fairly distinct feel from wakes in funeral homes. But there are some definite things you should avoid as a general rule.

First, don’t place any burden on the family of the deceased. Obviously, you wouldn’t show up at their home and make them wait on you hand and foot. But there are subtle ways mourners put pressure on the family. Saying something like, “Let me know if you need anything,” seems thoughtful on the surface, but it puts too much responsibility on the family. They may not truly feel like they can ask for what they need. Instead, try to anticipate their needs and offer concrete ideas on how you can help.

Next, while wakes may have entered the modern era, don’t post photographs or videos to Facebook or Instagram from the wake. Grieving, even in a shared setting, is an inherently personal experience. Posting photos or videos may make other mourners feel uncomfortable and exposed. Focus on being present in the moment and support the family. The exception would be if the family asks you to take a group photo and explicitly encourages you to post it online.

Don’t be intimidated by unfamiliar religious traditions. Versions of wakes exist in several different faiths. If you don’t share a faith with the deceased and their family, don’t feel pressured to participate in any prayer or sacrament that doesn’t feel right to you. Just stay quiet and respectful while these traditions are observed.   

Best Practices in Wake Etiquette

Wakes are all about paying your respects to the deceased and the deceased’s family. They focus specifically on uplifting the family of the deceased through sharing positive memories and stories.

At the end of the day, no matter our differences, the connections we make with one another are important. Across time and culture, celebrating those connections is an enduring aspect of the wake.

How do you host a memorial during a pandemic?

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