What is a Wake?

Posted: 11/12/2017

Wakes are rooted in Catholic tradition and are separate ceremonies to the funeral service. Wakes are used in order to pay respect to the deceased in a more informal setting than the funeral. The format of a wake allows for friends and family to gather casually, converse and oftentimes listen to music. A wake has very little structure and is seen as a more organic form of celebration than the traditional funeral.

Wakes are similar to what may also be called a ‘watch’ or a vigil: their prime function is to pay (oftentimes ritualistic) tribute to the dead. This is usually performed prior to the funeral service, and happens in the home or the family’s home of the deceased traditionally, with the body present. Modern wakes may occur in a funeral home, or in an outside area.

Wakes Throughout History

Throughout history, we have seen many types of wake ceremonies. Originally practiced among Roman Catholics, particularly seen in Ireland today, has now evolved as funeral rites have altered alongside modernization. Commonly among traditions, wakes are designed to allow attendees to express their emotions in an unsubdued manner; demonstrating the disrupting effect a death has on a society and its citizens’ daily expressions.

The Irish Wake

In many instances, Roman Catholic Irish communities still hold wakes the evening before a funeral. The Irish wake involves the gathering of friends and family and the subsequent consumption of food and drinks throughout the evening. Irish wakes are characteristically lively; typically consisting of singing songs, playing music and drunkenness. The tone of the wake is generally a mixture of joyousness and sadness.




The Irish wake is said to be an expression not only against a single circumstance (the death of a loved one) but also a retaliation against the order of things; against the sociopolitical landscape.

The American (USA) Wake

American wakes were similar to Irish wakes, as they arose from the gradual immigration of the Irish to the United States. Yet, these wakes were not to signify the death of a person; they were held the night before one was to emigrate, in mourning of their departure.

American wakes were a symptom of the Irish famine of the 1840s and 50s, which prompted many to flee from the poverty of Ireland into the United States. The American wake, then, was a means to grieve the metaphorical death of one’s Irish identity and of their physical presence among the family.

The Modern Wake

In modern times, the wake has been reformed as an alternative or supplementary celebration to a funeral service. For some, secularizing the wake has been a means to mark the death of a loved one in a non-religious way.

A wake is first and foremost seen as a celebration of the life of the deceased. As is the case for traditional wakes, modern wakes tend to include eating, drinking and general merriness. The intent of the wake is to memorialize the joy and happiness the community felt having known the person passed.

Due to the casual, joyous tone of the modern wake, it is, for some, a good alternative to the formalities of the funeral service. Also, although wakes are rooted in religious tradition, their less-structured nature may lend their appeal to non-religious people. For others, the wake is a good additional service to hold before the formal funeral.

How to Organize a Wake

Unlike in the case of a funeral, where a great deal of planning needs to be put in place (click here for our guide to funeral planning), the informal nature of the wake lends itself to little planning and preparation.

You will need:

  • A guest-list
  • A venue
  • Food and drink

The bare minimum that you will need to arrange will be who is invited; where the wake will be held; and what kind of refreshments you will be providing (if any). You might also want to ask your guests to come prepared with stories to share about the deceased, and perhaps some pictures they might have of them, too.




A great additional activity to encourage during a wake is to create a memory book for the family to keep hold of; all you need is a blank or lined book and a pen so that your guests can write their memories of the person passed throughout the day or evening. Allowing for guests to write down their memories allows for greater sharing, given that sharing verbally to a group can be emotionally taxing and at times difficult. Memory books allow for all members of the wake to get involved.

If you wish for the body to be present during the wake (perhaps in a casket or under some linen), additional preparation with the help of a professional will likely be required.

For more information on how to plan for a funeral and which provider can best help you, visit us at: perfectfuneralplans.com.