The word “wake” is a verb, meaning to prevent someone from sleeping, to wake the person up. As a noun, “wake” means a death vigil, usually held before a funeral. It’s a social gathering to pay one’s respects to the departed and give family members a chance to adjust to the loss before the corpse is placed in the ground.
The practice in many world societies of holding a wake for the dead arose at least partly from the fear of burying them prematurely. A Celtic pagan wake was one in which the corpse was placed under a table on which liquor was provided for the watchers. Any Celt who didn’t wake up and smell the ale was dead indeed.
While a wake is now meant to honor the dead person, they were once wild and unrestrained, for they had to be fit to “wake the dead.”
“Wake” originally denoted a prayer vigil, often an annual event held on the feast day of the saint to whom a parish church was dedicated. It used to be the custom in most Celtic countries in Europe for mourners to keep watch over their dead until they were buried. Such a ceremony is a prominent part of death rituals in many cultures. It allows time for the living to express their emotions and beliefs about death.
Traditionally, a wake takes place in the house of the deceased with the body present; modern wakes are often performed at a funeral home. In the US and Canada, it is synonymous with a viewing. Because death is potentially frightening and there are many taboos surrounding it, wakes are now often low-key occasions.
The practice of “waking the dead” is ancient. For example, in Homer’s Iliad both Hector and Patroclus are depicted as having had funeral feasts, which, if they resembled those of Achilles and Aeneas, included games and contests of skill. The practice of funeral games occurs as a common theme in accounts of funeral behavior throughout the world.
The seriousness of death, however, doesn’t account for the revelry and merry-making that are essential parts of the word’s definition in some parts of the world. Emotions, including fear, awe, thanksgiving, and praise are found in religious ceremonies surrounding death and dying,
The wake is often seen as a method of signifying to departing spirits that they must henceforth find a new life for themselves. But the ceremony is also intended to confuse ghosts and stop them from finding their way back to the land of the living.
I hope nobody holds a wake for me. After all, there are at least a couple of people I’ve promised to haunt.