Funerals, Wakes

Wakes and Post-funeral meals

Candle with FlamesQuestions: Hi, I came looking for anything you may have written on funeral etiquette, and there it was right at the top! Thanks so much! Do you have any thoughts on the post-funeral meal or wake? Where it should be, who is invited, what kind of food should be served? I would appreciate any more info you have.

Thanks again, Nancy

Answer:  Nice to hear from you. Thank you, Nancy, for your questions about wakes and post-funeral meals. In these instances especially many people are relieved and encouraged when they learn that etiquette politely bows to various customs and convenience.  Some general orderly guidelines, however, do exist.  Let’s look at  “wake” first. It means different things to different people.

The wake has old origins and refers to a vigil or watch by family and friends near the decease’s body the day and/or night before the actual funeral service. Today the term “wake” is often interchangeable with “visitation or viewing” before the funeral. The set time of visitation appears in the death notice so friends of the family know the time frame in which they can stop by. The casket may be opened or closed. A wake can also signify a private informal gathering of family and close friends, with or without the presence of the casket, but generally the body is present.

In times past, wakes (and funeral ceremonies) usually took place in private homes-thus as mortuaries grew in their services, they borrowed the name “funeral home”.  A private home gathering is still acceptable, but, because the mortician soon removes the corpse, any viewings (aka visitations) more often take place in a funeral home, chapel, or church according to family preference and convenience.  Close family members should be present to receive visitors for the viewing at specified hours when they choose to have a  visitation wake. Etiquette kindly allows a family to forego this type of wake if they prefer not to have friends’ drop by for visitations.

A wake takes place the day before the funeral service. It generally lasts several hours in the afternoon or early evening, after the body has been prepared by the mortuary staff.  If the deceased person was prominent or fairly well known with a wide circle of family, friends, and acquaintances then the visitation (viewing) times may extend over several days prior to the funeral service so everyone can pay their respects.

When planning a wake, consider the specific mood and needs of the the closest family members during the day and time preceding the funeral. Some families find a “public” wake too painful, even inconvenient. Others, however, receive comfort from an extended gathering and the condolences of friends.  There’s no hard and fast rule here.  Some families prefer two gatherings-the first as a more private family wake with a second general visitation, published in the death notice and including specific visiting hours.

In any case, all family members must be notified of the time and specifics for gathering together. The funeral director should be informed when a wake or viewing is desired so he can insure the arrangements and have the body ready.  Family members must also make sure every relative is informed of times and location.

Custom and convenience dictate specific details of where, who, and what. When I speak of convenience as part of the decision making process, it includes such things as where the wake is best held without inconvenience to the bereaved family who may not be ready or able to easily host such a gathering.  Convenience often means the funeral home or chapel is the best gathering place. Still, there may be a close family member who has pragmatic means and desires to host a gathering. If so, they should step forward and make their offer early on.

A good funeral director offers much help and advice for making decisions that best meet a family’s needs. When relatives gather, including out of towners who travel distances, a wake provides meaningful opportunity for family gathering and a necessary transition period. Ditto for a post-funeral meal.

Sometimes a wake involves food, and sometimes not. Generally people who come to a home wake bring a food dish with them that may or may not be served to others who drop by. The food can be saved for a later family meal.  In locations other than a home, light refreshments or drinks are optional. Food is seldom provided for general viewings in a chapel or funeral home where visitors stay only a short while. A range of options exist; all are satisfactory if they meet the bereaved family’s needs.

The atmosphere of a wake is that of an informal gathering and not necessarily glum, although tears and laughter may mingle. Christians are a people who have been given great promises of blessed eternal after- life, so when a follower of Christ dies, there is a certain rejoicing amid the grief. Wakes in any form provide an appropriate time to share positive remembrances, stories, and comforting words. Over the years it has become a commemorative occasion where the deceased person’s life is remembered and celebrated. We are also “awake” to the needs of those who grieve during these times.  I shared more specifics about appropriate  demeanor, words, and general guidelines in the previous Part II post.

A guest book is available for visitors to sign on these occasions.  Photos and mementos, such as special awards, of the deceased can be displayed.  These need not be elaborate or overdone.  At one recent viewing, the family placed their husband and father’s favorite fishing pole and baseball cap with his photos. His fishing basket was filled with flowers. These were later used at the funeral service.

Any flowers or a plant are generally sent ahead of time, but are not mandatory.  The death notice should state when flowers are not appropriate.  Orthodox Jewish, some Chinese families, and many Catholics do not want friends to send flowers to their funerals. (One of my older etiquette books also includes the Reformed faith-but all of the Reformers I know appreciate flowers).

In regard to a meal after the funeral, here again custom and convenience guide the decision making process.  Convenience involves practicality and provides answers about what to do. During funerals, etiquette’s wide arms first and foremost embrace respectable family traditions and needs.

About post-funeral meals: Providing food after a funeral service is a traditional and considerate gesture, especially when people have come from out of town or the service concludes near meal time. Eating together also provides a time of closure and fellowship, but what foods and how much is optional. Depending on the time of day, the meal could be luncheon or dinner foods, light or heavier, or just dessert. Someone, not in the family, must handle these arrangements right away.

Sometimes a meal just for family members and closest friends offers the most practical and best solution in terms of size and location. (Setting up for and serving several hundred people is a complicated situation).  At times convenience dictates that families have a small gathering at a restaurant. I prefer a home or church location. The main thing is for family and friends to be together. Here again, etiquette defers to custom and convenience with several options.

When family desires a post- funeral meal, then someone apart from immediate family must take charge of planning and soliciting food from friends or a caterer.  This responsibility requires direct and full attention no matter what the crowd size or whether the meal is for family and close friends only, the food simple or full courses.

A good rule of thumb says that “the larger the group, the simpler the food offered” (unless there’s endless funds ) Experience proves when more than fifty to sixty people are invited for a meal, simpler IS better.  As numbers go higher, UNLESS there’s an exceptionally organized group or church committee who can organize a sit down meal or buffet with cleanup for big numbers of people, then finger foods or cookies and drinks are most acceptable and appreciated.

In situations where everyone attending the funeral is invited for a post-funeral meal, then a general invitation is extended at the conclusion of the service.  The invitation can also be printed discreetly in the program. Most people who are not family members or close friends do not expect an invitation to an after funeral meal. Still, the organizer needs to arrange for ample food servings.

Guests have certain duties in these instances. One is greeting the bereaved family and another to thank the servers and those assisting the family with a meal.  Thirdly, be aware and ready to lend a helping hand should the situation need it.

These are my thoughts and most etiquette experts are in agreement with the general protocol discussed. I’m sure there are other PM friends wondering about these kinds of situations so thank you for your good questions and giving us the opportunity to review and consider them.  We all need to better understand that etiquette is vastly considerate, thoughtful, and worthwhile in such protocol matters.