what is the origin of having a wake for the recently deceased?

I’ve been wondering this for a while now…I was raised in a Jewish household and having a wake must not be a Jewish custom, because I’ve been to funerals, but I’ve never been to a wake.

I don’t mean to offend anyone, but I’m kind of glad that I’ve never been to one, because it seems just…wierd and gruesome to me. I mean, think about it - you dress up a corpse and then have a bunch of people come and look at it. This doesn’t seem at all morbidly strange to anyone? I would have thought that the custom would have gone out of style long ago…

Also, if anyone who knows anything about Judaism reads this, why are wakes not part of Jewish custom?

Also again, if the process of explaining the original purpose for a wake doesn’t properly explain why it is called a “wake”, could somebody provide the etymology as well?


Taken from Snopes.com

Okay, so it was (and still is) possible to be buried alive or to meet your maker on a post-mortem table. The prospect is chilling, and numerous people have gone to great lengths to make sure it doesn’t happen to them. The practice of ‘waking’ the dead (having someone sit with the deceased from the time of death until burial in case he ‘wakes up’) began out of this concern. Especially in bygone days when a number of illnesses could cause the sufferer to slip into a coma and thus make it appear all life functions had been snuffed out, the danger of overly hasty interment was real. (Edgar Allen Poe’s macabre short stories, most notably “Premature Burial,” certainly helped increase such fears among the general populace.)

No cites on hand, but I’ve read a couple of articles suggesting that it was very important to some cultures to make sure the deceased didn’t feel obliged to stick around and haunt the living–so we all have a good time, stick a mug of beer in his lifeless hand, and tell him to be on his way.

As I read it, this tradition has similar origins as the custom to wear a mask or veil at someone’s funeral, so that the ghost doesn’t recognize anybody there and become encouraged to haunt the living.

I believe a major difference between Jewish & Christian burial customs is that Jews bury their dead right away, where Christians usually wait 3 days or so. I think the Christian practice of embalming comes from the (past) belief that at the Second Coming the dead will rise from their graves with the bodies they and when they were buried. There are a lot of Christians who no longer think this to be true. And there are some who absolutely beleive it to be true. Hence the controversy about cremation. And Jews do not embalm at all.
I’m kind of fuzzy on this, so someon else feel free to jump in, correct, amplify, etc.

I can address the “weird and gruesome” part of the OP. While it may seem that way, they’re not. Although I admit I used to feel the same way.
I lost my father last April. That was the first time I was on the receiving end of the line that forms to view the deceased, and I found it to be an incredibly re-affirming experience. All of those people coming to say goodbye to my father meant so much to me.
I guess my point is, funerals (and wakes) are for the living.

Thanks for the info…I just realized that I posted this to the wrong forum.

There are cites in the OED from at least the 15th century referring to wakes for the dead.

For what its worth, the majority of funerals I’ve been to are of the Irish Catholic variety, and they consist of 4 separate items:

The Viewing-friends and family gather at the funeral home to pay last respects…held night before being laid to rest.

The Mass of Christian Burial-next morning pall bearers take casket out of funeral home and put in hearse to the church, which holds a service for the deceased.

The Burial-pall bearers take casket out of church and back in hearse to cemetery to be laid in the ground.

The Wake-friends and family retreat to local catered get-together to eat, drink, smoke, and shoot the breeze.

The wake is to see if the dead person might wake up after all, as said above, and the embalming is partly to make sure a person is dead, since the blood is taken out and embalming fluid is put in. At the Resurrection of the Dead God will provide you back with your body if it has been cremated and He has do do this anyway with bodies since they corrupt even if embalmed and because some graves have been disturbed and so forth…
But also some believe you go into the spirit world in a spirit body whatever religion you thought you were and live happily in the body in the spirit world just like here only there is no pain or suffering.
AND the wake in the sense of the viewing of the dead body is an occasion for people to all act together socially as recognizing that each other all recognize that the person is really dead. In other words at the interactive with other people level (the social level) the viewing of the dead corpse is a theatre act (more or less like all social activity is theatre) in which we witness that we are all acknowledging that we are all going to act from now on as if this person is dead; he or she is lying here not moving for a few days and that is how we are going to treat him or her from now on OVERTLY. Because covertly or subconsciously nobody really believes that anybody really dies, yet we have to BEHAVE (act) outwardly as if we thought they were really gone. We dream about the dead usually as if they were still alive and interacting with us and hadn’t died at all; we usually dream of them in some more or less characteristic or even mundane situation. There is Grandma walking down the dusty road with us on the way to the beach or the little stream where we are going to gather watercress just as always. She hasn’t come back to life because she never died and death has nothing to do with it. Such dreams, which are very much more common than dreaming specifically that the dead person has come back to life or didn’t die, show that we don’t really believe anybody dies.
One thing not mentioned yet is that the viewing or other handling of the corpse takes the form of dismembering it or cutting off its head in some societies because their belief system is that the dead, envious of the living, will rise up in a zombiesque manner and do harm.

One of the specific reasons for the Wake was lead tankards. People would get besotten on the local ale and also ingest a good deal of lead. The lead poisoning could often put them into a death-like coma.

Moving from Cafe Society to General Questions.

Enola–that sort of thing like you described isn’t just an Irish Catholic thing. I"m from the South and every funeral I’ve ever been to (no matter the religous denomination/prefrence) has been that way.

Maybe it’s an American thing?


Virgowitch. Where did you get your info?

If you’re interested in the history of death, a French historian named Phillipe Aries has written several well-respected books about the history of death in western culture. He was one of the historians to do an in-depth study of that subject.

I_Dig_Bad_Boys, it’s more likely that you mericans got it from us irish :slight_smile:

and the wake is basically just to give the dead person a good send-off. everybody sits around drinking and telling stories about their life. a celebration, if you will.

it’s a good way of helping the family to grieve, and means that they have their friends around them the night before the burial.

mostly we have them AFTER the burial nowadays, but my nextdoor neighbour died in his own bed, was laid out in the front room (that’s right folks, no funeral home) and had a 3 day wake, with the burial on day 2.

there’s an amusing irish song about a corpse that “wakens” called Finnegan’s Wake. i’m sure someone can find the lyrics, i’m too lazy.