Etiquette guidelines for attending a wake

No matter how many wakes or viewings you go to, the situation will always be somewhat uncomfortable. What do you say to someone who just lost a loved one? Do you offer help, or will that be too intrusive? Many of these questions can be answered by the type of relationship you had with the deceased and his or her family members. However, there are also some basic etiquette rules that can guide you through these difficult circumstances.

Giving a gift

It is always appropriate to send “thinking of you” or sympathy cards. In fact, this method of sending a heartfelt message is probably better than calling the family, especially if you are only an acquaintance. Understand that those closest to the deceased are not only going through an extremely emotional time, but they are also busy planning funeral arrangements. Instead of reaching out in person, send a greeting card to the family members. You may also want to send flowers to the funeral home.

Admittedly, it can be difficult to think of what to say in the card. Remember, just the act of sending a message will mean a lot to the family. Express your sympathy for the family in your letter, and let them know you’re available if they need you for anything.

However, there are some things you definitely don’t want to say in your card. Advanced Etiquette advises avoiding phrases such as:

  • “Be sure to stay busy, they say it is the best way through this”
  • “At least he is no longer in pain.”

Grieving family members probably don’t want to be told how to handle their grief or hear about any sort of silver lining in the death. Just keep it short, simple and sincere.

What to wear

This may seem like a superficial topic, but how you dress is actually very important in displaying your respect for the family and the deceased. Black has long been the traditional garment color for wakes and funerals. However, while you should still don subdued colors, you now have a little more freedom with what you wear. For example, you can wear deep blues or greens but should avoid overly bright hues. Additionally, this is a formal occasion, which should be reflected in your outfit. That means no jeans or T-shirts – they may show a lack of respect of care.

When you’re at the wake

Typically, one of the first things you’ll do upon entering the funeral home is sign the guest book. You should provide your full name and address. Not only will it provide the family with a way to contact you if they wish to send thank you cards, but it will also demonstrate that you were there to support them.

The family will usually be standing just beyond the open casket, waiting for those viewing the body to offer their condolences. It’s not mandatory to view the body, but you can stop and say a silent prayer if you wish. After passing the casket, approach the family and introduce yourself if necessary. Say a few kind words about the deceased, shake their hands, give them hugs, offer a warm smile – any small gesture will be appropriate.

When do you leave

There will often be a time slot of a few hours for the wake, and you can attend at any time. According to the The Funeral Source, it is appropriate for guests to stay at the wake for as little as 15 to 20 minutes. However, you should use your own discretion upon deciding when to leave. If you’re close with the family, you may want to stay longer. Offer to help and socialize with the other guests at the wake.

Though this guide gives a general overview of viewing and wake etiquette, you can use your own judgment in the moment. Sometimes a warm hug is the best thing you can give.