Why Is a Funeral Visitation Called a Wake?

A “wake” for the dead harks back to a more antiquated meaning of the word: “watch” or “guard,” rather than the “become or stay alert” definition that the word now carries. The term refers to the Anglo-Saxon tradition of holding all-night vigils and praying over the deceased.

The practice of holding wakes originates from a combination of two ancient Anglo-Saxon traditions. Early Christians held annual celebrations in commemoration of the completion or dedication of a new church or parish. These celebrations were known as “wakes” and involved feasting, sports and dancing. The following day would be recognized as a holiday by that parish and the night in between would be reserved for overnight prayer and meditation in the church.

Alongside the religious wake was the tradition of “waking the corpse,” which has its origins long before Christianity. This practice of holding an all-night vigil over the body of the deceased involved mourning chants and sharing the life story of the deceased. The practice has its roots in superstition, suggests the Encyclopaedia Britannica, citing a fear that evil spirits might harm or otherwise steal the body. These superstitions, coupled with practical concerns about rats and other vermin disturbing the body as it was prepared for burial, met with the above Christian tradition and soon the all-night vigils over the dead began to involve prayer, effectively combining the two forms of “wakes” that were practiced at the time.