What is the Difference Between a Wake and a Funeral?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Wakes and funerals are both ceremonies which are held to honor the dead, and they appear in many different cultures. The key difference between a wake and a funeral is that a wake is a time for visitation and commemoration of the dead, while a funeral is a formal ceremony which is conducted by an officiant. In many cases, both a wake and a funeral are held as part of a series of rituals which are meant to commemorate the passing of a beloved family member, friend, and member of a community.

During a funeral pallbearers are assigned to carry the coffin.
During a funeral pallbearers are assigned to carry the coffin.

Traditionally, a wake is held on the night before a funeral. Attendees at the wake stay up all night with the body, which is laid out so that people can visit and spend time with the deceased. Historically, funerals were held the day after a death, to give people time to gather for the event, and the body would be laid out in the home of the deceased or a family member, allowing members of the community to visit. Some cultures retain this tradition, while others hold the wake at a funeral home, and in some cases, the body may not be present at all.

Wakes allow time for visitation with the dead before burial.
Wakes allow time for visitation with the dead before burial.

At a wake, people eat, exchange stories about the dead, sing traditional songs and laments, and support the family members of the deceased. Different cultures have different beliefs about the wake, but generally people stay up all night with the deceased as a mark of respect, although wakes can actually become quite raucous, especially in the early hours of the morning. A wake and a funeral may sometimes be combined, with an officiant conducting the service in the morning after the wake.

Wakes allow friends of the deceased to offer their condolences to the family.
Wakes allow friends of the deceased to offer their condolences to the family.

At a funeral, a religious or secular service is conducted for the deceased. It is led by an officiant who may invite members of the audience to speak about the deceased, and culturally-important rituals may be conducted during the funeral. Usually, the event includes a request for mercy for the soul of the dead, and a celebration of the life of the deceased. After the funeral, the body may be buried, cremated, or otherwise disposed of, and in some cases, the funeral is held at the grave, allowing members of the funeral party to attend the burial.

Wakes and funerals may sometimes be combined into one ceremony to honor the dead.
Wakes and funerals may sometimes be combined into one ceremony to honor the dead.

Burial customs around the world are quite varied. In Judaism, for example, the dead are traditionally buried before sundown on the day that they pass away, and the death is followed with a mourning period known as shiva, in which family members follow very precise rules and host visitors at their homes. In New Orleans, the famous jazz funeral is accompanied with a musical march through the city, while in other regions, people develop their own burial customs and traditions. People who are attending wakes, funerals, and other burial rituals in a culture other than their own may want to do some research so that they know what to expect.

Rules of behavior at a wake and a funeral may also be markedly different. Wakes, also known as visitations, tend to be more informal and casual, with people flowing in and out to offer condolences and stories, while funerals tend to have more rigid rules of behavior. In both cases, people tend to dress in somber clothing, and they are sensitive around the close friends and family of the deceased out of respect to their emotional state.

Funerals are often conducted at a grave site.
Funerals are often conducted at a grave site.
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

You might also Like

Readers Also Love

Discussion Comments


The "story" about the graveyard shift and ropes/ bells in the coffins is also an urban legend.


Re: anon157779: Actually, that's an urban legend. 'Wake' evolved from a proto-european root and carries several meanings. Contrary to the urban legend that a 'wake' was to see if the dead woke up, the word 'wake' here actually refers to a different (now-obsolete) meaning, more like "to watch over" or "to guard".

The wake was held during the time between death and burial, and it was a time where those close to the deceased (as well as any servants/guards they may have had, if they held power) would literally guard the body and its clothing/jewelry/possessions from thieves and other criminals, until the body was ready to be buried.


Thanks anon157779. That made a lot of sense. Now I know why it's called a "wake". This got me thinking about how our family might want to conduct our aging father's funeral. At least we'll feel more prepared.


A wake is, as the name implies, a time to see if the person wakes up. Back before modern medicine could verify with certainty death had, in fact, occurred, a person could appear dead but would not be in reality. So they would lay them out in the home, and friends and relatives would gather and wait from one to three days, depending on the weather, fewer in summer than in winter, before the actual burying to see if the person would wake up, and sometimes they did.

Sometimes that wasn't long enough; people would wake up after they had been buried. At one time, coffins were fixed with a rope and bell system, just in case the person woke up they could signal to someone on the outside, up top, that hey I'm alive get me out of this.

Those who sat vigil to listen for the bell all night long are the root of the term grave yard shift. That bell system was invented because of coffins that were exhumed only to find deep scratch marks on the inside as the person had tried to claw they way out before finally suffocating to death. Thankfully, such things can longer happen, today embalming makes sure of that well in advance of the burial.

A funeral is the ceremony, usually religious, for the actual burial.


A wake, or viewing, is held the night before the funeral. It is usually open casket, if the body is presentable, so family and friends have the benefit of having one last look at their loved one before it is sealed. If the deceased was in the military, any decorations are displayed as well as any items loved ones want to be buried with them. In a Catholic viewing, the prayer of the rosary is read.

The funeral is usually held at the same location the following morning. Family can choose to have the casket opened for last goodbyes or it can remain closed throughout the ceremony. The pallbearers carry the casket to the hearse and then the funeral procession goes to the burial site. There is a trumpet and gun salute for those who served in the military and following the priest’s words guests are invited to toss dust to signify their loved one returning to the Earth as ashes.


I want to add that some wakes are held a few days before the actual funereal takes place.

Often in many Latin American cultures a priest is brought in to read some passages of the bible as it relates to the deceased.

There is also a praying ceremony that also gives comfort to those in mourning. For example, at my mother’s wake we had a priest that performed a sermon and then all in attendance prayed the holy rosary which consisted of the Hail Mary and Our Father prayers.

My mother was highly religious so this was very fitting for her.

The funeral was held the next day which consisted of a procession leading to a Catholic ceremony and finally to the ceremonial burial.

Post your comments
Forgot password?