Explaining Funeral Terms: What is a Wake?

There are many terms associated with the funeral industry; and one question we hear often is, “What is a wake?” While in modern applications this can be virtually synonymous with “viewing” or “visitation” or “calling”, a wake is a social gathering of family and friends paying respects upon the passing of a loved one. Normally, with any of these gatherings, the mourners are in the presence of the body of the deceased.

Let’s take a closer look at the history and distinctions associated with the term “wake”:

What is a wake? Traditionally, according to Wikipedia, “a wake takes place in the house of the deceased with the body present; however, modern wakes are often performed at a funeral home…” As a social rite, a wake can nurture a sense that the loss affects the larger group, including family, friends and even the community at large. But how did the practice originate?

What is a Wake? Here are the Origins:

Regarding an individual passing, a wake was initially an extended prayer vigil during which those in attendance stayed with the body in the home, as if watching over or guarding the deceased while in a state of continuing prayer. Indeed, the practice of holding an all-night prayer vigil in the presence of the body was often an effort to ward off evil spirits until the body could be buried.

The aspect of fervent prayer has diminished in subsequent generations, and extended wakes seldom are held in the individual’s home these days. But the aspect of a group coming together as an expression of social caring and group empathy remains – most often with viewing or visitation services taking place in a funeral home.

The often-cited tradition of an “Irish wake” has its origins in Celtic customs in which mourners held vigil over their departed loved one. As most residents of Ireland were Catholic, wakes are often closely associated with this faith. Protestant traditions associated with the term “wake” may include the expectation that the body will one day wake again or be reborn, as with the customary Christian belief in the resurrection of Christ.

The Viewing as a Form of Modern Wake

Modern traditions associated with a wake typically take the form of a visitation or calling in the funeral home. As with traditional wakes, the viewing often takes place the night before the funeral, although this timing can depend on the needs and wishes of the family and mourners. Viewings are mostly non-religious in nature, although religious symbols are often present in the viewing room, prayers may be said during the event, and expressions of faith in sympathy are often shared.

Today, at Stillinger Family Funeral Home, we can help you honor ethnic or faith-based traditions such as a wake, or provide modern adaptations with meaningful and reverent viewings and funeral services. To learn more, contact us at (317) 462-5536.

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