What Is a Funeral Vigil?

A funeral vigil is an opportunity, sometimes involving a formal ritual, to spend time with the body of the deceased before burial or other disposition. Viewings and wakes are examples of funeral vigils.

Perhaps as long ago as the Paleolithic period, mourners sat with dead bodies prior to burial. In some cultures, this was to protect the body from predation. In others it was to watch the spirit rise and witness for the deceased. In many cultures, the vigil became a point of law, both to prove that the person was dead and to preserve the body, often in situ, as evidence.

In modern society, the funeral vigil is primarily considered a Catholic rite. In “The Vigil: Making Room for God,” H. Richard Rutherford describes the vigil as a “period spent doing something through the night, for example, watching, guarding or praying.” The liturgies of the Word of God and of the Hours form the basis of Catholic funeral vigils.

The formal funeral vigil is similar to a wake, essentially a party (perhaps held in a bar with the coffined body present) held the night before a funeral to celebrate the life of the deceased. Viewings of the deceased, whether at a funeral parlor, in a church or in the home, can also be considered funeral vigils.