What Is a Catholic Wake?

A coffin in a funeral home.
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The Catholic wake, technically known as the vigil for the deceased, is a liturgical service to commemorate a deceased person and comfort grieving friends and family members before the funeral. Some Catholic church parishes perform the vigil for the deceased on a regular basis, while others have replaced it with the rosary.

1 Origins of the Wake

The custom of the wake comes from the ancient tradition of staying up all night in prayer before an important religious festival such as a saint's day. Irish Catholics traditionally held a similar vigil over the body of a deceased member of the community before the funeral, a custom that became known as the wake. The modern secular wake is usually held at the funeral home or at the home of the deceased, and can be as simple as a scheduled visiting time a day or two before the funeral service.

2 Liturgy of the Word

According to an article by professor of liturgical studies H. Richard Rutherford at the Pastoral Liturgy website, the vigil for the deceased can be based on the familiar structure of a regular Sunday worship service or "liturgy of the word." This type of vigil would include a greeting, an opening song, prayers, hymns, a gospel reading, a homily and a litany for the bereaved, followed by the Lord's Prayer and a final song and blessing.

3 Liturgy of the Hours

The vigil for the deceased can also be based on the liturgy of the hours instead of the liturgy of the word. This form of vigil emphasizes the psalms, particularly the "psalms of lament," including psalms 22 and 130. Rutherford notes that vigils for the deceased based on the liturgy of the word provide the comfort of familiarity, while vigils based on the liturgy of the hours provide an opportunity to express grief. Both versions of the vigil for the deceased can be modified if needed. For instance, if no priest is available for the vigil, a deacon or a layperson can preside instead. The vigil for the deceased can also be held at the church.

4 Other Options

Rutherford notes that not all Catholics are familiar with the vigil for the deceased and that it is much more common in some areas than others. Some Catholics follow a separate tradition of praying the rosary over the deceased person instead of holding a vigil. However, according to an article on Catholic funerals on the Diocese of Madison, Wisconsin's website, the custom of praying the rosary is not an acceptable substitute for the vigil of the deceased. "The vigil for the deceased is never omitted," says the Diocese.

Scott Thompson has been writing professionally since 1990, beginning with the "Pequawket Valley News." He is the author of nine published books on topics such as history, martial arts, poetry and fantasy fiction. His work has also appeared in "Talebones" magazine and the "Strange Pleasures" anthology.