How to plan a wake

  • Wakes tend to be less formal gatherings than funerals
  • They are held to share memories of the loved one who has passed away
  • Consider the location, music, refreshments, and decorations when thinking about a mood you wish to cultivate
  • The wake invitation list often differs from the funeral invitation list

The need to plan a wake emerges during one of life’s most difficult moments. Because you will likely face numerous emotional and practical obstacles while you are arranging a wake, it is important to move through the planning process one step at a time and to keep in the back of your mind the happy memories of the loved one in whose honor you are holding this ceremony. This will help you stay focused during the planning stages. 

The wake has its roots in the Irish Catholic tradition and is sometimes referred to as a vigil, a visitation, or calling hours. It is typically held before the funeral. It is a time for those who wish to mourn the deceased to come together, share memories, and say their farewells. A wake is less formal than a funeral service. It is simply a time for people to gather. 

A wake usually takes place during the afternoon or evening on the day preceding the funeral, though some people prefer to hold the a few hours prior to the funeral on the day the funeral is held. It is usually scheduled at one of two places: at the home of the loved one who has passed away, or at a funeral home. Wakes that are held at home often invite visitors to bring pictures, floral arrangements, small gifts, and even food and drink to be shared by all who have gathered. This is considered the more traditional setting. Nowadays, wakes typically take place at funeral homes. In this case, it is often the funeral home that arranges and coordinates the wake. This is a good option to explore if you feel that the demands of planning are taxing your time and energy. The tone you wish to set for the wake is entirely up to you. Some cultures prefer wakes to be festive remembrances and celebrations of the life of the loved one now gone while other cultures favor a more reflective atmosphere. 

Regardless of the tone, music and decorations are often integral parts of a wake. For the music, you may have a special musician in mind whose melodies would best honor the life of your loved one. If you wish to have live musicians but can’t settle on a specific artist, the funeral home making the preparations for the wake can make a recommendation or select a group for you. It is also common to play a soundtrack of songs of particular significance to the moment in order to set the mood. As with the live musicians, if you are having a difficult time putting together a playlist, talk to the employees of the funeral home about finding songs that best capture the mood you wish to cultivate. For the decorations, consider flowers and printed photographs. Funeral homes are also often equipped with projectors that would allow you to run a slideshow of images of your choosing if that is your wish.    

Finally, some other concerns to keep in mind include the people you wish to invite, the refreshments, if any, you wish to serve, and whether or not to have an open casket. Many wakes feature an open casket decorated with photographs and flowers so that those who wish to view the deceased one last time may do so, but many people also opt for a closed casket. When it comes to the guestlist for the wake, it often includes a larger number of people than the guestlist for the funeral. You may wish for some people to be at the wake and not at the funeral or vice versa. If you wish for a large number of people to attend, you can announce the time, date and location of the wake in the obituary for the deceased. Wakes generally last two to six hours. Whatever you choose, it is important that the information pertaining to the wake, including time, date, location and duration, be clearly stated in either the invitations you send out or in the obituary you publish. 

For the refreshments, you may wish to feature the favorite foods of the person the wake is held in honor of, or you may wish to hire a catering company to provide light refreshments for you in whatever venue you choose to hold the wake. When considering offering alcohol along with the refreshments, ask yourself whether you wish to keep the mood sober or whether you want to provide some drinks to make a toast to your loved one. As with everything else, it’s up to you. 

If you feel this is an overwhelming amount of information to keep in mind, you are not alone. Many people find it helpful to delegate as much of the wake planning as possible so that they may focus on their feelings and loved ones. Ask those who understand what you are going through to help you make arrangements, and if you are holding the wake at a funeral home, make sure to avail yourself of the experience of the employees who work there. If at any time during the planning process you feel overburdened, take a step back and remember that you are creating a special moment where people who care about your lost loved one can come together to share their joys, their memories, their feelings and their stories.

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