What is a wake?

A wake is a gathering held before or shortly after a funeral service. It’s a chance for the friends and family of the person who has died to share memories of their loved one and celebrate their life.

If you’re thinking of holding a funeral wake, the prospect of planning everything – the venue, food, things for the guests to do – might feel daunting. Your funeral director can do a lot to help, as can friends and family, so don’t be afraid to ask. And here, we’ll cover how to organise a wake, covering all the options you might consider.

A wake that takes place before the funeral, with the body of the person who has died, is sometimes called a viewing. A wake after the funeral might be called a funeral reception instead. You can do both, or neither – it’s completely up to you.


How to organise a wake

Holding a wake can be comforting, but organising one can be an emotionally difficult experience – especially if you aren’t quite sure where to start. There are a lot of different ways to hold a funeral wake, but here are a few things to consider if you’re planning one:

Finding a funeral wake venue

A wake can be held anywhere – your funeral director may be able to suggest some options, or you can find one yourself. It’s a good idea to get quotes and check out a few before deciding. Some possibilities are:

  • Community centre or village hall
  • Restaurant or pub
  • Church hall
  • Local sports clubhouses
  • Hotel
  • At home, or at a friend’s place
  • In summer, a quiet place outdoors may work

Some places will also offer catering as part of their fees, which can work out as less expensive than arranging both separately. If you organise a wake venue through your funeral director, be sure to check what the fee is. Wake-associated fees are usually considered third-party costs, and may not have been included in the figure they gave you first when you found them.

Inviting guests

The wake can be a private gathering for close family, or open to the wider community. You can always hold a quiet wake shortly after the funeral, and something larger when you’re ready later on. Once you know the time and the place of the wake, be sure to let guests know in good time. You can call or email friends and family, use a death notice in the paper, or (as many people do these days) use social media to get the word out. An online memorial page (such as Beyond’s free obituaries) can be another good way of keeping people up to date.

When you invite guests, they’re likely to ask if there’s anything they can do to help. It’s a good idea to ask them to bring food, or decorations, or help out with the set-up and clean-up. One option is to ask guests to take along copies of any photos they have of the person who has died to add to a memory board or book.

Organising funeral wake food

There’s usually a little food and drink at a wake, but there’s no obligation to provide it. If you’d like, you could ask each guest to bring a dish for a pot-luck. Or you could hold the funeral wake at a pub, restaurant, or hotel, where guests will be able to buy food and drink if they’d like some.

If you’d like to bring in a caterer, it’s a good idea to shop around and compare a few quotes and reviews before choosing one. Light finger foods and sandwiches are often chosen, and some families like to serve the favourite foods of the person who died.

When it comes to alcohol, some families like to avoid it altogether, while others will arrange a drink for guests when they arrive. You don’t have to provide a full open bar. If the person who died loved a glass of mulled wine on a winter’s day, you could serve a small cupful when guests come in from the cold, for example.

Need kitchen staff as well as food? Consider asking around for volunteers. Anybody who’s been wondering how they can help support you will almost certainly be glad to pitch in with the washing up.

Funeral wake ideas: what do you do at a wake?

It might be strange to think of providing entertainment at an event like this, and you don’t have to. But it can help bring people together to share memories of the person who died. Here are a few ideas:

  • Memory jars: Set some small jars out on a table with a stack of note cards, and invite people to write a memory of the person who has died on the cards and leave it in an empty jar. You can take these home at the end of the day, or hand them out to guests.
  • A memory tree, book or wall: Similarly, you could ask guests to write a memory on a tag or label and attach it to a tree, book or a board. This is a good way to create something that you can keep to remind you of your loved one.
  • Releasing balloons or lanterns: You can also write memories on these if you so choose. Another option could be to write messages on paper boats and release them onto a lake. If you do choose one of these options, however, make sure that releasing the objects is safe, that you have permission, and that you choose biodegradable balloons, lanterns or paper.
  • A slideshow or video: You could make a slideshow of photos and videos of ther person who has died, and ask the venue if you should put it on a big screen or project it on a wall.
  • Music: There are many ways you could have music at a funeral wake, from simply creating a playlist of your loved one’s favourite songs to hiring a band. You can even ask the guests for suggestions of tracks that remind them of time spent with the person who has died.


How to be a good funeral wake guest

Wakes are normally more informal than funerals, but there are still a few points of etiquette to consider:

  • Show up if you can. This gesture will probably mean a lot to the family. You don’t have to stay long if this is difficult for you, but if you’ve been invited they will really appreciate you being there. If you can’t come, make sure you send your regrets and condolences.
  • Stick to simple attire. It’s not usually necessary to wear black to a wake, but muted colours and simple, smart clothing are good options (unless you’ve been asked to wear something else by the hosts). Think a dress, or non-denim trousers and a shirt or smart top.
  • Greet the family. Again, this can be as simple as saying “thank you for having me here” – the family of the person who has died will be speaking to a lot of people – but it’s important to express your condolences and show them that you appreciate being included in this event.

If you’re looking for more advice on attending a funeral, you might find our guide to funeral etiquette helpful.


Why is a wake called a wake?

What is a wake? This custom has been around for as long as any other funerary practice, and many different cultures have their own forms of it. A wake used to be a way to keep watch over the body of someone who had recently died until it was time for the burial.

So, why is it called a wake? Well, the word “wake” is an old way of referring to a watch or a vigil, and a traditional wake was just that: the family of the recently deceased person sitting with their body, usually at their own home. While this is still done in some parts of Ireland and Scotland, modern-day funeral wakes in the UK are a lot more flexible.

Today, “wake” is something of a catch-all term; you can use it to refer to any kind of gathering of people close to someone who has died. They can be before or after the funeral, at a specific venue or somebody’s house, and can be adapted to fit the culture and religion of the person being honoured.

Need someone to talk to about planning a wake? Call our free hotline on 0800 044 9454. Our friendly advisors are here to talk you through your options any time.




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