A Guide To Wakes, Funerals, And Etiquette

Attending a wake or a funeral is something that most of us will do at some point in our lives. The rituals and customs for death and funerals vary across cultures. As these events are often not a regular, everyday occurrence, it can feel intimidating or overwhelming to take part in if it is an unfamiliar experience. 

Many people have questions, including what to wear, how to behave, where to sit, when to arrive, and what to do. Knowing what to do in these situations will help relieve decorum anxiety and allow you to support the family with more ease. We have provided a helpful guide to use as a reference for those who are looking for the etiquette dos and don’ts for both wakes and funerals. 

The Difference Between A Wake And A Funeral 

A wake, also sometimes referred to as a visitation, is usually the day before the funeral service. It is a time when both family and friends come to pay their respects to the deceased. The immediate surviving family, including spouse, siblings, parents, and children, all line up in a receiving line so visitors can extend their condolences to the family. 

A funeral is usually (but not always) a religious-based ceremony that honors the life of the deceased. This event serves as an opportunity for family, friends, and the community to say their final goodbye. It is a sad occasion that serves as an opportunity to reflect on the life of the deceased person and honor them. A funeral, generally speaking, is usually the day after the wake or the visitation service. 

What To Expect At A Wake 

A wake usually is held at a funeral home and will take place before the funeral or memorial service. Sometimes there will be a casket or urn on display. Whether or not the casket is open varies depending on the family’s preference. Immediate family members will be lined up next to the casket or urn in a receiving line to greet and connect with those who attend the event. 

When approaching the casket or urn, there might be a small bench in front of it. That is for kneeling in prayer if that’s something you would like to do. This is a very personal decision, and there are no wrong ones here. It is also completely acceptable to walk by and pay your respects in silence. You should not linger excessively at the body, as you want everyone to be able to have the opportunity to pay their respects. 

After you pass the casket or urn, then you will pay your respects to the family members that are in the receiving line. Once you have passed through the line, you can leave the wake or join the other mourners to quietly socialize and congregate. 

What To Expect At A Funeral 

Every funeral service is different, depending on the deceased’s religious customs and personal preferences. The urn or casket will be at the front of the room. The first few rows of seating are always reserved for the grieving family. There may be ushers, usually friends of the deceased or members of their community, who hand out programs for the ceremony. You can then sit wherever you like. 

A religious or community leader will then lead the ceremony. There may be hymns, prayers, and poems read. There may also be eulogies, which are speeches given by loved ones that honor the life and memory of the person that has passed away. 

Once the service is finished, the casket or urn will be led out of the room, and the family will follow in a processional line. Once the family has left, everyone else is free to leave in an orderly fashion. 

What To Wear to a Wake or Funeral

What you wear to a ceremony for paying respect to someone that has passed away matters. Black clothing or subdued tones are the most traditionally appropriate for these occasions, although certain cultures also encourage the wearing of white or other colors. Generally, though, this is not the right time for a flashy or ostentatious fashion moment. In regards to a dress code, dressing business casual to business is usually the appropriate fashion tone. 

Of course, there are exceptions to every rule, and sometimes you might have no choice but to wear something that might otherwise seem inappropriate for the moment. If this is the case for you, do not stress. Paying your respects to the family takes priority over your outfit. That being said, try your best to dress appropriately for the occasion. 

If you are unsure what to wear, it is totally okay to ask the family if you have a close relationship with them. If you are not particularly close with the family but know someone that is, you can reach out to them to see what the family’s preference on the official dress code is. 

Etiquette Tips For Both Wakes And Funerals 

There are a few important pieces of etiquette to keep in mind before, during, and after these important events:

Arrive At Least Fifteen Minutes Early 

If there is one piece of advice regarding funeral or wake etiquette to adhere to, it is this: be on time. Try to arrive at least fifteen minutes early to secure a seat. 

If an unforeseen circumstance happens and you are running late, enter the space trying to attract as little attention as possible. Instead of walking down the middle aisle to find a seat, enter your row from the side. If the funeral procession has already begun, wait outside of the room until it is complete. 

Phone Decorum 

This is very, very important: turn off or silence your phone before you enter the event. It is preferable to turn off your phone entirely, but understandably, that may not be feasible for everyone depending on their circumstances. Even a vibrating phone will be an unwelcome distraction during this sensitive time. 

Be Conscientious Of Your Time With Family Members 

Make sure you pay your respects to the family, but also be aware of not monopolizing their time. Now is not the best moment for a long story or exchange. It is an overwhelming, often dazed experience and the family members will be greeting and speaking with every person who attends the event. This is harder for them to do if they are otherwise occupied, so graciously grant them the space to float from conversation to conversation. 

It is also not the time to take any photos with others, even if you have not seen each other for a long time. Any photography should be taken well outside of the service area. 

Length Of Visit 

How long you need to or should stay at a service depends on many factors. These include your relationship to the person that has passed, your relationship with their surviving family members, how busy they are, how much they appear to want company, and where the event is taking place. 

If you are at someone’s home, it may be more appropriate for you to stay for a longer period of time to remember the deceased than if you were at a proper funeral home. Be aware of the social cues of the family and other guests and take your social cues from the group, as you do not want to accidentally overstay your welcome. 

Follow Up After The Service 

Those who are grieving and close to the person who passed will most likely be receiving an overwhelming amount of support and attention in the first few days after their loved one has passed away. Unfortunately, a lot of this attention halts itself after the services have been completed, and people go back to their daily routines, leaving those who are grieving to mourn alone. During the weeks, months, and years after a loved one’s death, it is important to continue to show your support. Some thoughtful suggestions are sending the family tasteful flowers, food, a soft robe, or comforting scented candles along with a card. 

You can reach out by phone or in person. Sometimes a person needs someone to talk to; other times, they just need someone to take a walk alongside them. 

Final Takeaways

Coping with loss is never an easy experience to go through. By following the above guidelines, you will gradually become more at ease as an attendee. It is always helpful to support other friends by sharing the information you have learned with those who are looking for guidance. Together, you will be able to then show your support for both grieving and family members in a respectful manner. 



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