A wake is a gathering of people held as a way of coping with the death of a friend, acquaintance or relative. Depending on the culture in which it occurs, one can be very low-key and somber or happy and raucous. Typically, people hold one after a person has died but before the burial. It is not clear exactly where the term originates, although many theories based on different traditions and legends exist.
In most cases, people hold wakes within a week after a person dies, as regulations often require disposing of a body quickly. They usually take place prior to the funeral, however. In the United States, people sometimes schedule them for the same day as the funeral so that people can go directly to the cemetery afterward, but depending on the circumstances, holding one a day or two before the funeral is also common. The exceptions to this are when no body can be found, such as often happens with cases of missing persons, and when someone is cremated. In these instances, the event essentially doubles as the funeral.
The main reason for wakes in modern society is to give people a chance to come together and remember a person who has died. Through these events, loved ones can take comfort in each other as they mourn, and they recognize the larger influence that a single person had on the entire group. Those who attend usually pay their final respects to the deceased, and they often tell stories about his or her life. The process of going to one sometimes helps people accept the reality of the death.
Wakes in the United States often are rather somber affairs, as they deal with the loss of human life. As with funerals, many people who go to one wear black or other dark colors. The style ultimately depends on the wishes of the deceased and his or her loved ones, however, as well as the beliefs they have. In some cases, for example, such as in the Irish tradition, people turn them into virtual parties despite their mourning, celebrating the dead person's life and the fact he or she has passed on to a better place. These types might feature prayer, upbeat music, eating and drinking, games and even dancing.
Traditions Around the World
In Ireland, when people want to hold a wake, they usually stop all clocks in the house, which some experts claim became tradition because doctors used to live far away — stopping the clock noted when the person died. It also showed that the mourners could grieve at their own pace. People also often cover the mirrors, following the superstition that if the dead person sees his reflection, his spirit will haunt survivors or get trapped in the mirror. The women of the family generally wash and dress the deceased, often in white, and perform keening, traditional mourning songs. As this takes place, based on the ancient Celts' belief that death is a time for rejoicing, guests celebrate the dead person, providing a balance for the grief.
Traditions similar to those found in Ireland, complete with feasting and drinking, exist in Jamaica and among the Maori of New Zealand, as well as in other cultures around the world. In the United States and Canada, these events are also known as viewings, because it is customary for people to look briefly at the body of the deceased individual as they say final goodbyes. Unlike in other areas of the globe, North American viewings usually happen in funeral homes rather than the home of the deceased.
In some parts of the world, people who host wakes follow up with a reception, in part to thank guests for taking the time to attend and pay their respects. The meals served usually are lighter unless just a few guests come, and the foods tend to be ones that most people from the area like. Sometimes, the hosts make all the foods from scratch, especially if they want to honor the dead person by cooking his or her favorite dishes, but in other cases, the hosts invite all guests to have lunch or dinner at a public restaurant where they have reserved some space. Although this is more expensive, it is often more convenient, as the hosts frequently are very tired from making arrangements and grieving.
Why people use the term "wake" is not exactly clear, but according to one urban legend, people used to drink alcohol out of lead cups. They would pass out, and others would think they were dead. Just to make sure the person truly had died, friends and family would sit with the body to make sure the person didn't come back to life. The idea general idea was to keep someone from being buried alive.
Some people say that these events got their name from the way that a boat or other vessel leaves a trail behind itself when moving on the water. To survivors, the dead person is like the boat, moving on to the afterlife. Friends and family are left behind in the wake.
Another reason people call this type of gathering a "wake" might be because it used to be fairly common for people to rob graves for items like rings and watches after a burial. In the 18th and 19th centuries, some scientists went even further and stole bodies for science, a practice that, despite its gruesomeness, greatly advanced the understanding of human anatomy. Additionally, hungry, wild animals sometimes would disturb the burial plots. Friends, family or hired individuals would guard the place where someone was buried for these reasons. In fact, the word "wake" is related to the Latin vigil, which means to keep watch.
Still another theory about the origins of the term is that, by getting together and causing a ruckus with merrymaking, the dead person could not truly sleep and go into the next world. These events, when done "party style," were more for the dead person's benefit, not for the survivors. The rowdier the guests got, the better the odds were of getting a loved one to stir.
Some experts believe that the lightheartedness of the party wake, in reversing the normal expectation of grief, is symbolic of the chaos the spirit has to pass through to get to the next life. This representation is confusing and keeps the spirit from coming back to the world. Such "reversing" is evident in the some African traditions, such as wearing clothes of the opposite gender and allowing women to take dominant roles that normally would not be acceptable.