A Complete Guide To Wake and Funeral Etiquette
Attending a wake, visitation, or funeral is something that most of us will encounter in our lifetime. And since it is not an everyday occurrence, many people are unsure of what to expect and have questions about what to wear, when to arrive and what to do. This go-to guide is a complete reference for those looking for etiquette do’s and don’ts for wakes and funerals.
What is the difference between a wake and a funeral?
The wake or visitation is typically the day before the funeral service and refers to a time when family and friends come to pay their respects to the deceased. Immediate family including surviving spouse, children, parents and siblings are lined up in a receiving line so that visitors can extend their condolences to the family.
A funeral is typically a religious based ceremony that honors the life of the deceased. The funeral provides an opportunity for family and friends to say their final good-bye. The funeral service is also a time for the congregation to come together as a community during a time of sadness and reflect on the life of the deceased. Funeral services generally take place the day following the wake or visitation.
Knowing what to expect at a wake and a funeral can ease some anxiety and allow you to be prepared to support the family. You can learn more about how to help family after they have suffered a loss here and how best to assist them during the rough days ahead.
Every wake or visitation varies slightly depending on the circumstances leading up to death, the family’s wishes and the funeral home. Here are some general guidelines that are common with most wakes and visitations.
What should I expect at a wake?
A wake is typically held in a funeral home and takes place the afternoon or evening before a funeral. The casket or urn is on display in a room, and the casket may be open or closed with a small kneeling bench in front. Immediate family members are lined up after the casket.
When approaching the casket or urn, some visitors choose to kneel and bow their heads in prayer. The decision to kneel is a personal one, and it is perfectly acceptable to walk by and silently pay your respects to the deceased.
After passing by the casket or urn, people express their condolences to the family in the receiving line. Once you have passed through the receiving line, you can leave the wake or quietly mingle with other friends and family paying their respects.
What do I wear to a wake?
Knowing what to wear can take away some of the stress since no one wants to show up inappropriately dressed. What you wear is another way you show your respect for the deceased and the family.
Appropriate wake attire for women
Inappropriate wake attire for women
Black clothing, subdued tones and business attire is always a safe bet for woman. Slacks and a blouse or sweater are also appropriate. Clothing that is attention getting or ostentatious should be avoided and is not appropriate for a wake.
Appropriate wake attire for men
Inappropriate wake attire for men
Men should lean towards a suit and tie or a shirt and tie for a wake. A sweater and nice pants or a button down shirt in black or dark subdued colors with dress pants is also appropriate. Bright colors and casual clothing such as t-shirts and denim should be not be worn.
Sometimes there are exceptions to the rule, and you have no choice but to wear jeans or other attire that may not be proper. In these instances, paying your respects to the deceased and the family precedes lack of appropriate clothing. You should try, however, to dress appropriately.
What do I say to the family?
Your relationship with the deceased and the family can be a guide as far as what to say and what not to say when offering your condolences.
Things you can say:
"Let me tell you about the time..." Sharing a memory provides you with a way to express a memory that you treasure and tells a story that may bring the family some comfort.
"Hello, my name is _________. I worked with your son for many years. I'm so sorry for your loss." A quick introduction of how you knew the deceased and an expression of sympathy is perfectly okay.
"Joe Smith. I'm a close friend of your son-in-law and I know he is devastated by the loss of his wife. I am so very sorry." Introduce yourself, your connection to the deceased with a warm handshake and an expression of sorrow.
Things you should not say:
“I know what you’re going through.” Every loss is traumatic, and everyone approaches loss in a different way. Where well-meaning, the family could get offended.
“They are in a better place.” or “They aren’t suffering any longer.” No matter if this may be true such as with a long battle with an illness, the family still wants the deceased alive and with them.
“Call me if you need me.” Most people won’t call. They are too involved in their own grief. You reach out to them. You make the effort with the understanding that it is too much for the family to ask for help.
If you don’t know what to say, then it’s okay to say nothing at all. Give a warm hug, a handshake, a gentle squeeze of the hand as an expression of sympathy.
How long do I stay at the wake?
The length of your stay once you’ve passed through the receiving line is a personal choice. Some may choose to look for other friends and family that they know and stay to show support. Others may choose to leave immediately after paying their respects to the family. Either one is acceptable.
Whom can attend the wake?
Attendance varies depending on your relationship to the deceased, your relationship to the family of the deceased and the age of your family members.
- If you had a close relationship with the deceased, you should attend the wake. This applies to all members of your immediate family that may have also shared a relationship. It offers them a way to say a final good-bye and pay their respects to the family.
- If you have a close relationship with a family member of the deceased, it is appropriate to attend the wake even if you have never met them. It provides a way to pay your respects to your friend and express your sympathy for their loss.
- Children may or may not attend a wake depending on their relationship to the deceased and their age. If a child expresses interest in attending, prepare them for what to expect as best that you can and let them attend. A child that is adamant about not attending or is very young should not attend a wake.
We interviewed a funeral director to get some insight into what families can expect. Get real answers to real questions in our Interview with a Funeral Director.
Attending the funeral is a personal decision, and many people choose to attend one ceremony or the other. Depending on your closeness to the deceased or your closeness to the family, you may choose to attend both. Some rules of etiquette to follow can help you not only pay your respects but show the family support during a difficult time.
What should I expect at a funeral?
Every funeral service varies, and it will also vary depending on the individual's religious customs. The urn or the casket is at the front of the church, and we reserve the first rows of pews for family. Someone may hand visitors a program, and then they are invited to sit wherever they’d like.
A member of the clergy such as a priest or minister leads the service. You can expect hymns and prayers, and there may be a eulogy and a sermon presented to the congregation. The delivery of the sermon is a way to bind memories of the deceased with a part of scripture. A eulogy is a speech given by a member of the family or a close friend that the family has selected.
Once they finish the service, they lead the casket or urn down the aisle and the family files in behind and follows. Once the family has left the church, the visitors can file out in an orderly fashion. There may be a receiving line outside the church or in the church's foyer where visitors can express their condolences to the family.
What do I wear to a funeral?
When attending a funeral, wear attire that would be appropriate for a church service. Nice pants and a collared shirt, a suit and tie, a dress or other attire that is a step above casual is acceptable.
When choosing your attire for a funeral, there are some things to keep in mind:
For example, if the weather is expected to be hot and humid, a simple shirt and tie are okay in lieu of a suit. By the same token, if it is going to be wet and rainy, make sure to pack an umbrella and wear appropriate shoes. Keep in mind that often times churches may be on the warmer side so layer your clothing appropriately. Plan ahead and dress accordingly.
If you’re in doubt and have a close relationship with the family, it’s okay to ask. Some families may take a more relaxed approach to the dress code and that's perfectly fine. If you're not close to the family but know someone that is, don't hesitate to ask them what the family's preference is on attire. Their wishes supersede all else.
If you are ever unsure of what to wear, it is better to dress up rather than dress down. A shirt and tie with khakis, a suit, even a nice button down shirt with a pair of dress pants is acceptable for a man. Women should lean towards a dress, a skirt and blouse or dress slacks and an appropriate top. Choose the more formal clothing over jeans, t-shirts, shorts, etc.
Whom can attend the funeral?
Funeral attendance is not always necessary. Certain circumstances dictate when you should attend and when you should not.
Funeral attendance tips:
- If you went to the wake and paid your respects and you didn’t have a relationship with the deceased, it is perfectly okay not to go to the funeral service.
- If the deceased is a member of your family, a close friend or the relative of a close friend than every effort should be made to attend the funeral service as well as the wake.
- Young children should not be brought to a funeral service unless they had a close relationship with the deceased or express an interest in attending.
Do I go to the cemetery burial?
There may be a cemetery procession after the church service. Those that are going to the burial service are asked to turn on their hazards and follow the hearse and the vehicles carrying the family to the cemetery.
Going to the cemetery burial is optional and a personal decision. If the family asks you to go, then every effort should be made to attend. If the funeral is for a friend or a family member of a friend, the option to go to the cemetery is up to you.
Can I attend the reception?
The family may have a reception that follows the funeral service or cemetery burial. It might be at a family member’s home, in the church cafeteria or at a restaurant or hall.
It is okay to attend the reception if:
Family invite. If you have been invited to attend by the immediate family, then every effort should be made to go.
Clergy invite. In some cases, the priest or minister will extend the invite to the congregation on behalf of the family to attend a reception.
General invite. There may be a general invitation to a reception that is on the funeral programs or included as a part of the obituary.
Wake and Funeral Etiquette FAQ's
We know you have questions and we have answers! Read some of the more commonly asked questions about wakes and funerals.
What is appropriate to wear to a wake?
A wake is a formal occasion, and your attire should reflect that. Any sort of business clothes such as a shirt and tie, a dress, nice pants and a top in dark colors would be suitable and appropriate. Avoid bright colors and clothing that is revealing or flamboyant.
Do you have to wear all black to a wake?
No, you do not. Your clothing can be darker colors such as blue or grey. Earth tones and neutral tones are acceptable as well. Avoid wearing brightly colored clothing.
Is it okay to wear jeans to a wake?
You should not wear jeans to a wake or visitation if at all possible. In some instances where it is inevitable due to leaving directly from work, etc. paying your respects to the family and the deceased comes before inappropriate clothing. Otherwise, make every effort to be dressed appropriately in somber colors and more formal attire.
Can you wear leggings to a wake?
Leggings are okay for a wake as long as you pair them with a formal top such as a longer sweater or blouse. Leggings paired with a mid-drift top would not be proper.
What time should I arrive?
Plan your arrival when it is convenient for you, but keep in mind the family as well. If the wake is from 4 pm to 8 pm, showing up at 7:55 pm makes a long day for the family even longer. Try to plan your arrival so that you arrive at least a half an hour before the wake is due to end.
How long does a wake last?
A wake typically lasts anywhere from two to six hours depending on the circumstances. They hold them in the early evening hours of the day preceding the funeral service.
How long should I stay at a wake?
Length of stay is a personal decision. After you have paid your respects to the family, it is okay to mingle with guests and visitors quietly for a short period of time. It is also okay to leave after you have paid your respects.
What do you say to someone at a wake?
Introduce yourself if necessary and explain your relationship to the deceased. Then express your condolences. For example, “Hello my name is Rob Grant. I was a friend of Billy’s from college. I am so very sorry for your loss.” If you have a favorite memory of the deceased that you would like to share that is short, it would be appropriate to do so at this time.
I don’t know most of the family. Do I have to greet everyone in the receiving line?
You should greet all the family members in the line. It is rude to duck out of the line without expressing your condolences. Say your name and express your sympathies for their loss and shake their hand.
Should I bring flowers to a wake?
You should not bring flowers. If you would like to send flowers to the family, you can send them to the family’s home or send them directly to the funeral home so they can display them at the service.
Can I give the family a card at the wake?
You should not bring a card for the family to the wake. They can misplace or forget them. Either deliver the card after the services or send the card in the mail.
Do I have to go to the funeral if I went to the wake?
In most situations, going to one or the other is acceptable - especially if you did not know the deceased but are going to provide support to a friend or family member. If you were close to the deceased and/or close to the family, then every effort should be made to attend the wake and the funeral services.
What do I wear to the funeral?
Funeral attire should be dark somber clothing. A shirt and tie for men and dress or slacks and a blouse for women. Black, navy, gray, neutral tones are all appropriate colors. Avoid bright or flamboyant clothing.
Can I wear jeans to the funeral?
You should not wear jeans to a funeral. You should wear business attire or more formal clothing unless otherwise specified by the family of the deceased.
It’s going to be 90 degrees. Do I have to wear a suit to the funeral?
The weather can play a part in what you wear to a funeral. For high heat and humidity, a shirt and tie or a collared shirt and dress pants are perfectly fine.
Can I sit anywhere I want in the church?
They reserve the front rows of the church for immediate family, and you should avoid them. The rest of the pews are available in most cases.
I must leave right after the services. Can I sneak out of the church before the family?
If you must leave immediately after the services or are coming in late, make yourself as inconspicuous as possible. Sit in the back row of the church and if you need to leave, consider leaving near the end of the services before they walk the casket or urn down the aisle.
The family asked me to give a eulogy, and I don’t know how! What do I do?
It is an honor to be asked to give the eulogy for a friend or family member. Brainstorm some ideas on paper and think about your favorite memories of your loved one. You can read our How To Write An Outstanding Eulogy for a step-by-step process to help you knock it out of the park!
What do I say to the family after the services?
If there is a receiving line outside of the church, give your name if you don’t know the family and express your sympathies for their loss. Keep your condolences short and sincere.
Can I have my flowers sent right to the church, so they are a part of the service?
You should not have your flowers sent to the church since the family may choose the arrangements that are displayed. If you choose to send flowers, have them sent directly to the funeral home or to the home of the family.
Can I bring a card for the family to the funeral service?
You should not bring a card to the funeral service. There may not be a basket for cards, and in the midst of the service or afterward, things can get misplaced. Mail the card or hand deliver to the family in the days and weeks ahead.
Do I have to go to the cemetery burial?
Going to the cemetery is optional. If you are an immediate family member or a close friend of the family, then going to the cemetery would be appropriate. In most cases, however, there is no obligation to go to the cemetery.
My brother and his family were invited to the reception, but I wasn’t. Can I go anyways?
If they did not personally invite you to the reception, err on the side of caution and do not attend. Whether it is for budgetary reasons or personal reasons, the family can invite who they would like to attend and not invite others. Respect their wishes as best as possible.
My friend is having a celebration of life for his mom. What is it?
A celebration of life is an informal reception that may be held in lieu of or in addition to a funeral service. It may be held at a hall, a home or at a restaurant and is an opportunity for friends and loved ones to gather together and celebrate the life of the deceased.
Can I wear jeans to a celebration of life?
Because a celebration of life is more casual, jeans are appropriate. The atmosphere is generally a little more laid back so the attire can reflect that. Keep the attire conservative and avoid clothing that makes you stand out.
Can I bring a gift for the family to the celebration of life?
This would be a great time to bring a gift, a card or a token of sympathy to the family. You can give the gift to a member of the family to give the recipient the following day or, if appropriate, give directly to the recipient at that time. Photo engraved pendants are a great gift idea and are not only affordable but personal to the family.
When someone dies, family and friends look for ways to express their condolences to the family. These expressions of thought and care vary and can range from a floral display to a card or handwritten note for a donation to a charitable organization.
Grieving gifts let the family know that they are not alone, and you are thinking of them and there for support. It gives the family a tangible reminder of their loved one and can bring comfort during the difficult days ahead.
What types of grieving gifts are available?
There are many options for gifts outside of ordinary flowers and sympathy cards that allow you to show the recipient that you care and offer comfort.
When do I give a grieving gift?
There isn’t necessarily a right or wrong time to send a grieving gift. Depending on the gift you select, the timetable varies.
Immediately after a loss
Flowers and food baskets are a great idea to send immediately after a family suffers the loss of a loved one. Food baskets, in particular, can come in handy with family coming together to make arrangements and additional bodies to feed.
After the services
Grieving gifts such as cremation jewelry wind chimes, and photo frames are a great idea in the days and weeks following the services. Read more here how cremation jewelry can help a child grieve.
There are many firsts after suffering the loss of a loved one. Grieving gifts like photo engraved jewelry, planting a tree and memory stones are wonderful ways to mark those ‘firsts’ and keep the memory of the deceased alive and with the family.
Want to learn more about our grieving gifts?
Learn more here about how an ash pendant can help those that are grieving, such as children. You can also watch our video highlight of one of our customer favorites, the Silver Plated Colorful Butterfly Remembrance Keepsake below.
Other Helpful Articles and Information
We have some other articles that provide helpful information to families that have suffered the loss of a loved one.
A complete guide on how to choose photo engraved jewelry. We cover everything from available styles to personalization options to gifting suggestions.
Read more about unique ways in which we can support friends and family that have suffered the loss of someone they loved. From gifting ideas to simply being there, we cover it all.
Many families choose to scatter a few of their loved one’s ashes in a location or locations that have special importance. Learn about rules and regulations with our National Parks and read our 7-step checklist to get you headed in the right direction.
Jewelry Keepsakes has a beautiful selection of cremation jewelry and photo engraved keepsakes that make for ideal grieving gifts for family and friends. Call us at 1-877-723-7229 or send us an email at email@example.com. We are available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week and can answer all your questions!
Updated May 23, 2019 by Jeri K. Augustus