Manners & Misdemeanors

11 Things You Must Know About Wakes and Funerals

As we celebrate lives well-lived, we also need to think about last rites. After all, nothing is certain but death and taxes.

Dying is definitely an unplanned event, even when it is from a lingering ailment. And yet its aftermath requires coordination of details like venue, flowers, food, and managing a guest list.

While event planners do weddings, product introductions, book launches, and anniversary tributes, they seldom include wakes in their suite of offerings, even if the requirements are similar, but with a shorter planning cycle, a few hours at best. The last rites are, by default, then relegated to the do-it-yourself category, and service providers like catering and floral arrangements are contacted on the day itself with little preparation and budgeting.

The very idea of planning a wake is considered indecorous, if not an invitation of bad luck. A few are persuaded to prepare their last will and testament, though even that chore requires some convincing. But someone else preparing your last rites can cause that too-earnest relative to be removed as a beneficiary in the will.

Perhaps, a few aspects of this final goodbye— like choosing a resting place and deciding whether to be cremated or buried as a meal for worms—have transcended our customary queasiness in being overly organized for the inevitable. If there are any instructions to be followed, they are usually spread out in many conversations, usually involving other parties (“I like the way they chose the flowers for this wedding.” “Do you also want poinsettias, grandpa?”).

Wakes are still social occasions as they bring together friends and relatives if not quite for a joyous occasion, maybe as an opportunity for remembrance and rediscovery of common links. Is there an accepted form of carrying this out?

Here are some considerations for the unplanned event.

1. Someone needs to be making decisions on the details, and this is usually the one paying the bills, or most of them anyway. This simple matter needs to be resolved right away. The dearly departed who may have been the patriarch whose every whim was catered to by those now left behind is currently unavailable for consultation. The designation of the decision maker and there are many tiny decisions that need to be quickly made starting with the caterer for the prayers, often evolves naturally.


The nearest of kin, however, may be too disconsolate to be handling routine decisions. She can designate a deputy, maybe a son or brother, who will take care of the details, and hopefully pick up the bills.

2. Notification of death is digital now. The printed obituary is merely posted for the record as word-of-mouth, or more specifically, online posts spread the news of the demise of a relative or friend more quickly. News of death, especially when sudden and unexpected, can serve as the model for what advertising people call “viral marketing,” the dissemination of information is no different from the spread of dengue or where to get the best pizza in Vancouver. The message is forwarded in all directions. There is no need for printed invitations. All information on masses, prayers, and the final farewell is contained in the visitors’ register. There is no need to attend to guests or keep them entertained. This top item on the agenda of a regular hostess is really at the bottom of the list in the case of this sad occasion. Wake-goers know this and they bring along a conversation mate, coordinating visits so that there is surely one or more persons that one can safely chat with about irrelevant topics like the rise in real estate prices or the crash of the stock market.

3. The bereaved relatives are not expected to keep visitors from leaving (seats have to be freed up for the newcomers) but only to acknowledge their presence and in a lull period, maybe to respond to that frequently asked question—how did he die? Even if the answer is already known, it is obligatory for the guest to ask it. And while the bereaved has answered this question dozens of times, he is still obliged to respond one more time until it becomes rote to him. He may add a new detail—“he actually mentioned you in our last conversation. He remembers you fondly.”


4. The next duty of the host is to usher the guest to view the remains. Unless these are in an urn, in which case this ritual can be dispensed with. It is socially acceptable to view urns from a distance as a closer view adds neither intimacy nor the expected comforting words—he looks like he just fell asleep. Urns don’t reveal much. They also don’t offer any automatic words of comfort (Did they also burn his pacemaker?).

5. Food is not expected to answer for the day’s nutritional needs. Anyway, the average stay for most drop-bys is 30 minutes. In this brief period, hunger pangs or even thirst can be held at bay. So, even when hosts at a wake are thoughtful enough to provide a buffet table with waiters, only the truly uncouth take this occasion to replenish lost calories, or horrors— take some home in a doggy bag. The available food is intended for close relatives who attend to the wake and make sure the makeup of the special guest is always refreshed, or the urn re-polished from too much touching.

6. No entertainment is expected. Still, as any event planner understands (though not engaged for this occasion, but nonetheless consulted), there has to be some kind of program. Aside from prayers and services, there are tributes scheduled. If the loved one belongs to an organization like a fraternity (I call on Mr. M to answer the roll call) it is best to let this organization run this part of the show and bring its own guests. The later the hour in the night these rituals take place, the better. The costumes and incantations can be disconcerting to non-members.

Getting more popular now are slide shows of the loved one just looping on a screen. Photos of the dearly departed in his younger days when he was young and supple, maybe including his first communion and travels to Honolulu, are preferred. This allows unaccompanied and unattended guests to be occupied with the PowerPoint presentation and not needing to be rescued from ennui. Outside the hall, smokers and drinkers can have loud exchanges, even debates on the politics of vendetta, without affecting the meditative silence inside the chapel.


7. In a wake, there is no notion of gatecrashers. If there is no guest list, how can there be uninvited guests? Still, there are delicate issues of known rivals or other loved ones that wish to attend the wake. This is best handled by an emissary who will arrange visiting times that will avoid confrontations and nasty scenes like the overturning of urns. (How do you sweep the ashes?) Political drop-ins mindful of the unwanted attention they generate from favor-seekers should time their visits at odd hours like the fraternity members, and plan this only to ensure that their presence is noted by the bereaved.

8. There’s no need to worry about what to wear at wakes. Unless one is the guest of honor (and even then someone else decides what you wear), it is only helpful to remember what colors to avoid and to treat the visit as a somber event which may not be hospitable to shorts and Hawaiian shirts.

9. Clearly, this occasion ends with interment. But if this takes place a few days after death, each day will be a separate occasion. Certain venues impose a curfew for visitors. This allows the bereaved some sleep and rest each evening. And if the loved one is inside an urn, this can also be brought home for the night, even if there is little risk of ossuary theft. Unlike cell phones, ashes are not high on any thief’s list of desirable acquisitions.

10. Hosts are not expected to bring guests to the door. This unexamined rule also provides a convenient opportunity for the bereaved to conserve energy and stay in the seat on the front pew for as long as she likes.

11. The best rule to follow in a wake is to forget planning altogether and just deal with events as they unfold. And what worse disaster anyway could possibly occur that is even faintly equivalent to the passing away of the breadwinner? The guests in this case are inclined to be forgiving. They don’t nitpick (“Did you see how cheap the urn was?”). Guests come of their own volition, and are not likely to be critical of any perceived shortcomings in logistics like the bread on the buffet table running out. This is a short visit for them and meant to give the bereaved only consolation in her hour of grief.


Visitors would rather attend some other occasion. This one reminds them too much of their own fate, which makes them realize a wake is like a foreign city: it is a nice place to visit, but you wouldn’t want to live there.

This story was originally published in the November 2011 issue of Town&Country.

About The Author
A.R. Samson
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