What Is the Difference Between a Wake and a Funeral?

Published May 19, 2020
Family at a Funeral

There are a lot of events that can take place after an individual passes away which may include the wake and funeral. Understanding the differences between a funeral and wake can help you feel better prepared for what you may experience.

Differences Between a Wake and Funeral

The difference between a wake and a funeral is that the wake typically occurs a few hours to days before the funeral. The wake is a time to potentially view the body of the deceased and say your goodbyes, while the funeral is typically a more formal service that honors the deceased.

What Is a Wake?

A wake is a social event that takes place before the funeral and can occur days before or on the day of the funeral depending on the family's wishes. During a wake, individuals usually dress nicely in clothes that would be appropriate for attending a funeral. At a wake, there may be a religious or non-religious ceremony and an opportunity to view the body of the deceased in an open casket. If chosen not to be buried, there may be an urn displayed with the deceased's ashes if the individual was cremated.

Open casket wake

If you are comfortable doing so, at the wake you will have one last opportunity to say your goodbyes before the deceased is buried or their ashes are spread or taken home by their family. The deceased's family members may be standing by the casket or urn during the wake. Even if you don't want to view the body, you can still pass on your condolences. Be sure to keep it brief if there is a long line of others waiting to view the body after you. Keep in mind that at a wake:

  • The family may refer to this as visitation
  • You do not need to view the body if you feel uncomfortable doing so
  • You typically do not need to stay for an extended period of time, just enough to connect with the family and view the body if you'd like

What Is a Funeral?

A funeral is religious or non-religious structured event where a deceased individual is honored. At a funeral, individuals typically wear black or dark colors to signify that they are in mourning, but dress codes will depend on various factors such as religious and cultural practices of the deceased's family. At a funeral, prayers or poems may be read, and typically those close to the deceased will share favorite memories and thoughts about the deceased individual.

  • Some funerals are also called celebrations of life, and these may include more upbeat speeches have a different tone.
  • Other funerals may have a heavier feeling, especially if the passing was tragic or unexpected.

During the funeral ceremony, there may or may not be individuals crying and/or weeping while the ceremony goes on. This will depend on several factors, but it's appropriate to prepare yourself to either become emotional yourself and/or witness others expressing their feelings of loss.

Should I Attend the Wake and the Funeral?

It is a totally personal decision when it comes to attending events that honor someone who passed away. You may opt to attend one event, but not the other, and that's completely okay. These are decisions that only you can make. Ideally if you were very close to the deceased and their family you would be able to attend all the events honoring their passing, but circumstances can get in the way that prevent that from happening. Individuals may choose not to attend one or all of the events because:

  • They are no longer close with the individual who passed or their family
  • They are uncomfortable with viewing the deceased's body
  • They have a strong discomfort attending funerals or wakes and feel as if their reaction may disrupt the service
  • Someone else close to them passed away and attending another funeral or wake may put them in extreme emotional pain
  • The funeral and/or wake requires travel that they are unable to comfortably afford
  • Travel bans or restrictions have prevented their attendance

If you choose not to or are unable to attend the wake or funeral, but still want to connect with the family of the deceased you can send a letter, send a small gift, and/or call them to let them know you are thinking of them.

Wake Versus Viewing

The viewing refers to the period when you get to say your goodbyes to the deceased prior to them being laid to rest. Viewings are typically short and you can stay for as long or as little time as you're comfortable with.

What Happens During a Viewing?

During a viewing the body of the deceased is present to see and may be in a casket. Typically, the body has been cleaned, prepared, and embalmed by a funeral home. The viewing can occur right before the funeral service, but can also take place a few days before the funeral.

Terms May Be Used Interchangeably

Wake and viewing may be used to describe the same event in some circumstances. Wakes, unlike viewings, may include a religious service, or a more formal event, while viewings are typically centered on individuals seeing the deceased prior to the funeral. Whether you attend a wake or viewing, or if the family is using the terms interchangeably, you will most likely need to dress nicely, even if the funeral isn't taking place on that same day. If the wake or viewing is occurring right before the funeral, you can wear funeral appropriate attire and attend the funeral afterwards without needing to change.

Understanding the Differences Between a Funeral and a Wake

Attending services and events after someone has passed away can feel overwhelming. Knowing what to expect can help you better mentally and emotionally prepare for these events.

What Is the Difference Between a Wake and a Funeral?