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.
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.
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.
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.
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.