What is a Wake? (Difference between a Funeral, Wake, Memorial)

What is a wake, and how does it differ from a funeral or memorial service? This guide will explain everything.

Have you ever wondered about the traditions surrounding death and mourning? Throughout history and across cultures, people have gathered to honor those who have passed away.

But what is a wake, and how does it differ from a funeral or memorial service?

This guide will explore these traditions, their historical roots, and how they can provide comfort and closure during a difficult time.

What is a wake?

A wake is a special time for family and friends to come together after the loss of a loved one. It's a chance to gather before the funeral service to share memories, offer comfort to each other, and pay respects.

Traditionally, wakes are held with the body present, though this isn't always the case today.

The term "wake" actually comes from a time when people would stay up late, keeping watch over the deceased.

This practice, most common in Europe centuries ago, was mostly done to help the soul transition peacefully.

Over time, it evolved into a more social gathering focused on remembering and honoring your loved one's life. 

During a wake, there are a few common activities:

What is a funeral?

A funeral is a formal ceremony held to honor and say goodbye to a person who has passed. It's a public gathering of family, friends, and sometimes the broader community, to celebrate their life and share in the collective grief of their passing.

Funerals may follow religious or secular traditions, offering a space for reflection and mourning.

Here's a closer look at the common components of a funeral:

The purpose of a funeral goes beyond simply saying goodbye. It serves several important functions:

What is a memorial service?

A memorial service is a heartfelt gathering to honor and remember someone who has passed. It’s typically held without the deceased's body present.

Unlike funerals, which often take place within a short time frame after the passing, memorial services can be held days, weeks, or even months later.

This flexibility allows families to plan a ceremony that best suits their needs and accommodates those traveling from far away.

The beauty of a memorial service lies in its ability to be personalized. Unlike the structure of a funeral, memorial services can be tailored to reflect the unique personality and interests of the loved one who has passed.

This can allow for a more creative and celebratory atmosphere, remembering their life in a way that feels most authentic.

Here are some common elements you might find at a memorial service:

Key differences

While wakes, funerals, and memorial services all honor the life of a person, they have some key distinctions:

Presence of the body


Tone and formality

Here's a table summarizing the key differences:




Memorial service

Is the body

Sometimes present 

Is present

Not present

When is it held?

Shortly after death
(1-2 days before funeral)

Within a week
or two of death

Days, weeks,
or months after death

What is the tone

Can vary (somber or relaxed)

More formal and structured

Most flexible (informal to formal)


Frequently asked questions

What is the purpose of a wake?

A wake gives people the opportunity to pay respects. The presence of the body (traditionally) provides an opportunity for mourners to say their final goodbyes in person.

A wake also provides a space for sharing memories and offering comfort. It allows family and friends to gather shortly after the loss, share stories about the deceased, and offer support to one another during a difficult time.

Why is it called a wake?

The term "wake" originated centuries ago in Europe. People would stay awake overnight to keep watch over the deceased. This practice stemmed from the belief that the soul lingered near the body after death, and keeping watch ensured a safe passage into the afterlife.

Is a wake a Catholic thing?

While wakes are common in some Catholic traditions, they are not exclusive to Catholicism. Many cultures and religions have similar traditions of gathering after a death to pay respects and offer support.

These gatherings may have different names and specific rituals depending on the religion or culture.

Do all religions have wakes?

No, not all religions have wakes. However, many cultures and religions have traditions for gathering after a death to honor the deceased and support the grieving family.

These traditions may vary in name, formality, and specific rituals.

For example, Judaism has a tradition called "shiva" which involves family gathering for a week of mourning, while Buddhist traditions may involve chanting or meditation practices after a death.

Next steps

If you’re attending a funeral, wake, or memorial service — or if you’re organizing one for someone who has passed, we understand the weight of this moment. 

If you’re planning out your memorial event in the Los Angeles area, consider using Meadow.

At Meadow, we offer a more compassionate and meaningful way to celebrate a life well-lived with customized memorial planning services.

Our team of caring memorial planners will partner with you during this tender time to create an occasion as remarkable as the life it honors.

With our licensed team, you can expect:

Explore our Personalized Memorial Services.