What Do I Do During a Visitation or Wake?

Funeral guests
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Question: Someone I know has recently passed away. I've never been to a funeral before, and I have no idea what all is expected. What do I do during a visitation or wake?

Answer: A visitation is a period of time before the funeral for people to spend time with each other, and if the casket will be open, the body is often in the room for viewing. A wake and viewing are similar in that they both give mourners the opportunity to express their grief, share their experiences with the deceased, and offer condolences to the family.

Funeral Stress

Funerals can cause quite a bit of stress among even the most experienced people. Some folks have no idea what they're supposed to say or do during this solemn and often depressing event, while others dread them because they worry they'll say or do the wrong thing. If you aren't sure what you should or shouldn't say at a funeral, remember that you're not alone. Offer your sympathy to the family of the deceased in a concise manner and move on to give someone else the opportunity to visit with them.

All About Wakes and Visitations Before a Funeral

Remember that you're not the only person who feels uncomfortable, and no one will judge you on how you act or what you say, unless you do something ridiculous to call attention to yourself. If you're not sure that what you want to say is appropriate, don't say it. This is the time to employ your strongest speech filters. Your main purpose in being there is to offer support to the family and close friends of the deceased.

When to Arrive

Make sure you know when the wake or visitation is scheduled to begin. You don't want to show up too early or late. Sometimes it's listed in the obituary, but you can also call the funeral home and ask what time the funeral service is scheduled to start. Since there may be more than one funeral that day, you'll need to give the name of the deceased. If it is held in someone's home, make a brief phone call to the host to find out.

What to Wear

Dress conservatively. In the past, most people wore black or other dark colors to anything related to a funeral. However, that is no longer necessary. What you wear should be subdued, unless otherwise requested. The key is to avoid calling attention to yourself through whatever clothing you choose. This is more about showing respect to the family and close friends of the deceased.

What to Say

Immediately upon arrival offer sympathy to the family of the deceased. If you are at a loss for words of condolence, simply saying, “I’m sorry for your loss,” is appropriate. If you were close to the deceased but do not know the family, you should introduce yourself. If you are close friends with the family, you may have more heartfelt words to say. Keep your voice low and avoid outbursts of crying or laughter.

What to Expect

Each wake can be different, dependent on the religion, customs, and wishes of the family of the deceased. Sometimes the body is in an open casket on one side of the room, giving those who want to pay their last respects the opportunity to do so. 

You are under no obligation to view the body if it makes you uncomfortable, but if you do, don't linger very long by the casket. Other people will need some space to pay their respects.

If the deceased has been cremated, the family may opt to have the urn with ashes flanked by photographs of the person. Viewing the deceased is an option but not necessary. Don’t forget to sign the guest book.

Flowers or Donations

It is appropriate to send flowers for the funeral, live plants that the family members can bring home later, or donations to the favorite charity of the deceased. The most important thing is to honor the wishes of the family. It's best not to bring flowers, plants, or donations with you to the funeral. Send them in advance. After all, the family doesn't need another thing to handle on such an emotional day.

How Long to Stay

There is no requirement of how long you should stay. The length of your visitation depends more on how long it takes to offer condolences to the family and speak to other visitors. If you were a close friend of the deceased, you may want to stay longer than if you barely knew him or her.

If You Can't Attend

If you're unable to attend the wake or visitation, send a heartfelt note expressing your sympathy. Follow up with flowers or a donation.