How to Attend the Wake of Someone You Didn't Know Well
Wakes, like funerals and other similar services, can be an awkward experience. They can be even more awkward if you didn't know the deceased. Maybe they were a cousin or friend of your parents that you never knew, or maybe you know the immediate relatives of the deceased and are going to show your support. The definition of and practices involved in a wake can vary widely, but they generally are open for anyone to stop by, share memories, and express sympathy to those missing their loved one. If you can show up discreetly and be supportive, compassionate, and respectful, you’ll manage just fine.
Offering Your Condolences and Support
Write a sympathy card.These can be found in drugstores, card shops, and gift shops. You can also use a blank card to write a message of sympathy to the bereaved — the important thing is what you write inside. If you knew the deceased even a little, you can write a small note of a happy time you enjoyed with them. Otherwise, stick to offering words of sympathy and support for the bereaved.
- Go for something simple, but not impersonal: “Please accept my condolences on your loss. I only met Albert once and briefly, but I know how much he meant to Chad (my co-worker and friend) and the rest of your family. Please know that you will be in my thoughts [and/or prayers]. Sincerely, Jan White.”
Bring a gift as indicated by the family.Read the obituary in the paper or online, or ask a family member you know well. Depending on the family’s wishes, you may have the option of sending flowers or making a donation to a designated charity, disease research foundation, or hospice. While not required, it is a nice gesture and will be greatly appreciated by the bereaved.
- It’s also a nice gesture to ask the bereaved if you can bring food to the wake (or in the days before or after), to give them one less thing to worry about. Or, offer the gift of your time by offering to help with setup, cleanup, or other useful tasks.
Talk to other people in the receiving line.Depending on the type of wake it is, the casket holding the deceased person may be present. If so, you’ll usually start your visit by entering the line to stop at the casket. Be subdued but not somber — you can chat with the people near you, since that's a key part of what wakes are for.
- Simple small talk is fine: “Hi, I’m Jan, and I work with Albert’s grandson, Chad. I didn’t know Albert well, but I know from Chad what a caring and fun-loving person he was.”
Pay your respects to the deceased (if the casket is present).If you wish, you can kneel down to pray at the casket for a moment. It’s also perfectly acceptable just to stop to view the body for a moment, then move on to greet the bereaved.
- Even if you never met the person before, show respect for the life they lived and the loss felt by those who loved them.
- As you approach the casket, there will often be a place where you can leave sympathy cards or other gifts for the bereaved. If you have them, that's where they should go.
Tailor your conversations to suit the nature of the wake.Wakes can vary greatly in regards to atmosphere. Some will include more joviality, with happy stories about the deceased. Others will remain more solemn in nature. Get a “feel for the room” before you begin to mingle with family members and other attendees.
- Take your cues mainly from the people you know, especially if they were close to the deceased. If they are smiling and laughing, you can as well (but respectfully). If they’re crying, be a source of consolation and comfort.
Give the bereaved simple, but not trite, words of support.As you approach the grieving family members, introduce yourself as needed. Speak briefly and compassionately, and tell them how sorry you are for their loss. If you are at a loss for words, don't offer a canned response. Instead, simply offer those grieving a hug or a shoulder to cry on if they need it.
- Stay away from comments along the lines of “it’s for the best,” “they’re in a better place,” “I know how you’re feeling,” "At least they're no longer in pain," "only the good die young." or “it will get easier over time.” Don’t tell them how to feel; instead, praise the deceased (if you knew them at all) or just offer your support.
- Instead, say something simple and supportive, like "I feel fortunate to have known Mark. I am sorry for your loss."
Listen attentively and sympathetically.Wakes, like funerals, are for the living, not the dead. While bereaved loved ones are sometimes quiet and reflective, often they are eager to talk quite a bit about the deceased. Never force them to talk, but if they do want to, listen and pay attention to them.
- Especially when you don’t know the deceased well enough to add many memories or reflections yourself, your job is to be a sympathetic ear and perhaps a shoulder to cry on.
Share pleasant memories (or just pleasantries) with other attendees.After you’ve offered your sympathies to the close family, you can look around for other people you may know. Even if you don’t recognize anyone else, feel free to introduce yourself and chat for a bit. Talk fondly about the deceased (if you knew them well enough to do so), or just listen to their stories and smile.
- There may be photos or a slideshow with pictures of the deceased during happier times. If so, you can look at these with others and say: "Hey, I remember that!" or "Bob always had such a great sense of humor," or "Wow, I'll really miss those Monday night football games over at Larry's place." Wakes are for reminiscing and remembering the good times.
- You may be asked how you knew the deceased by other attendees. Keep your answer simple, like "We volunteered at the same organization. He was a great team leader."
Arriving and Departing Respectfully
Dress conservatively in subdued colors.You don't have to wear black, but this also isn't the time to wear the wildest, brightest thing you own. Blacks, greys, browns, tans, and muted blues are all acceptable. In terms of types of outfits, think of what you might wear to a wedding, but with an even more muted color palette. Everything should be clean, pressed, and simple. Shoes should not be athletic shoes, sandals, or very high heels. These rules apply to children, too.
- As with weddings, you don’t want seem like you’re upstaging the “star” of the proceedings with a bright or outrageous outfit. Avoid neon colors or bright reds, yellows, and oranges. Likewise avoid clothing with cheery prints like flowers or bold patterns.
- Likewise, it would be rude to go causal and wear jeans.
Arrive at your convenience, but with the bereaved in mind.Wakes often last several hours, so that everyone gets a chance to stop in. Only close loved ones tend to stay the whole time, so you don’t need to plan to be there for hours. At the same time, though, it's disrespectful to be in a rush to leave.
- If you are going there to support a bereaved friend or colleague, think about — or just ask — when they might need you there the most. You might even offer to help set up beforehand or close up at the end.
Enter the wake venue quietly and soberly.Wakes usually aren’t as somber as funerals, but that doesn’t mean you should strut in with a smile and a hearty “How ya doin’?” Enter quietly, with a respectful and compassionate countenance. Turn off your cell phone or set it to silent before you enter so as not to cause any distractions. Then, politely thank any greeters or anyone who opens the door for you.
- The goal is to be inconspicuous. You want the bereaved to notice your presence on their time, instead of announcing your own arrival through your words, actions, or attitude.
Sign the guest book, if one is provided.Some wakes will have guestbooks, and some won’t. If there is one, it will usually be located right by the entrance. Take a quick moment to sign it, and especially if you don't know many people there, add a small note of how you knew the deceased or know the bereaved.
Depart quietly when you feel the time is right.After you have finished spending time with other attendees, you may proceed to make a quiet exit. Unless you feel it would be disruptive to do so, quietly mention to one of the bereaved that you’re leaving. Offer a final consolation, or just a polite goodbye.
- Say something like “It was an honor to attend, and please once again accept my condolences for your loss. Please give me a call if I can be of any help. Good evening.”
- If it feels right to do so, you can also go up to the casket for a final goodbye.
Deciding Whether to Attend
Don’t assume that you need to be invited.Wakes typically are open to anyone who knew the deceased, even just a little, or who is just close to some of the bereaved. Keep a lookout for information in published obituaries, or ask someone you know well for details on the wake.
- Wakes, however, can vary by tradition — some are smaller affairs, while some resemble large parties. If you’re not sure, ask someone you know.
Stay away if you think you will cause pain for the bereaved.If you’ve had some sort of falling-out with the grieving family, or otherwise suspect that your presence will cause discomfort, it’s best for all involved that you not attend. You won’t show respect for the deceased by hurting their loved ones with your presence at the wake. Just pay your respects to the deceased privately, on your own time.
- If you’re not sure, talk to a family member of the deceased with whom you’ve maintained a good relationship.
QuestionWhat if you do not have the family's address but would like to send flowers to their home? Is it not really the venue to ask for the address?
Licensed Master Social WorkerLicensed Master Social WorkerExpert AnswerIf you wish to send flowers directly to the address of the bereaved then you should contact the funeral home and speak to the director. They will have that information if the family has agreed to disclose it. If not, then your best bet is to have the flowers delivered to the funeral home and the director can inform the family that they are there.Thanks!
QuestionDo I introduce myself first, before I console them or what?
Licensed Master Social WorkerLicensed Master Social WorkerExpert AnswerOf course. Obviously they would want to know who you are before you offer words from the heart or a simple hug. Keep it brief though as this is not the time to have a long drawn out explanation of who you are if they do not know already.Thanks!
QuestionWhat happens if the pall bearers carrying the coffin drop it?wikiHow ContributorCommunity AnswerExpect the reaction to be one of astonishment and shock, followed by an attempt to fix things quickly. The pall bearers will try to restore the dignity, the coffin and deceased's body will be checked for damage. If there is, then the funeral may be halted while the damage is fixed, and you would have to wait if that's the case. If not, the funeral and pall bearing will continue as if nothing ever happened. The officiant may step in to reassure everyone.Thanks!
QuestionWhy would Staying Alive by the Bee Gees be an inappropriate song to play?wikiHow ContributorCommunity AnswerThe title is ironic, the track is also medically recommended as a guide when giving CPR, making it all the more awkward. Disco is upbeat and cheerful and therefore all songs in this genre of music should not be played. However, if the deceased requested otherwise in their will, perhaps as an ironic wink at the whole affair, then that would be fine.Thanks!
QuestionWhat happens if the building is set on fire during the viewing?wikiHow ContributorCommunity AnswerThanks!
QuestionWhat do you do if you bring a baby and it starts crying at a viewing/funeral?wikiHow ContributorCommunity AnswerSimply leave the room and comfort the baby outside of the ceremony area. Return when the baby has stopped fussing. You could also ensure that the baby has plenty to keep it occupied or arrange that babies are kept occupied in a nearby room with a babysitter and collected once the ceremony has ended. It might be easier to leave the baby at home with a babysitter in some situations.Thanks!
QuestionWhat happens if a policeman or lady finds reason to arrest an attendee?wikiHow ContributorCommunity AnswerIf a policeman/woman decides to make an arrest at the wake, the person will be taken away quietly, and possibly placed in handcuffs but out of respect for the occasion, any handcuffing would likely not occur until the person had been removed from the principal room. The wake will continue after the police leave and the officiant may step in to reassure everyone.Thanks!
QuestionShould I order a stripper to my brother's send off?wikiHow ContributorCommunity AnswerThis depends entirely on the deceased's expressed wishes. If the deceased thought this would be appropriate as a send off and asked for it, then it's part of fulfilling their wishes and those present are likely aware of the deceased's sense of humor and personal taste. If not, then no, it is not appropriate to order a stripper, as it would be disrespectful and may easily offend many of those present and in grief.Thanks!
QuestionShould I go to my boss's brother's wake?wikiHow ContributorCommunity AnswerIt is completely up to you, and if you feel as though it would be the right thing to do. If you and your boss are close or good friends, it might be nice to go and show support for him or her.Thanks!
- Remember, wakes are usually meant for remembering and sharing good times in a somewhat happier way, to celebrate the life that was lived.
- The funeral, on the other hand, is usually intended to mourn the life that was lost in a serious, somber way. That said, it's perfectly okay to cry at a wake. You won't be the only one.
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