Funeral Etiquette: What to Serve at a Wake

Historians and other experts seem to have differing opinions on when and where the wake actually began. But funeral feasts were referenced in works as early as The Iliad. There are also varying explanations of why wakes were believed to have started. But today, wakes are held mostly as gatherings to pay respect to the deceased. Sometimes they are held during viewings, while other times they are held at separate locations. If a loved one has been cremated, their remains will typically be present during the wake so that people can pay their respects.

Establishments such as Legacy Cremation Services can present the remains to the family in tasteful urns that they can display wherever they’d like. Some cultures treat them as festivities to celebrate life. And others are more solemn occasions to allow more time to mourn. But whatever the atmosphere of the wake, the family typically serves some type of food and drink.

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If you’ve been tasked with planning a friend or loved one’s wake, you probably have a lot of questions. Where to hold it, who the guests will be, and what to serve are the most common details to hash out. And each detail may depend on one another for consideration. For example, where the funeral is held plays a big role in what you will serve. But other factors will also affect your decisions. Here is what to serve and how to serve it when planning a wake.

Plan the food to fit the culture

If you’ve been asked to serve in this role, chances are you are part of the same culture of the family of the deceased. But if you are not, you should be aware of some of the differences. Irish wakes, for example, represent the more traditional types of wakes. They are not intended to be somber, but rather a huge celebration of life. Some of the older customs include storytelling and playing games. While people do not commonly hold wakes in the most traditional sense anymore, you can still bet they expect plenty of food and drink to be available. The main thing to do before planning a wake is to ask the extended family what type of occasion they’d like it to be. This is even more true in the case of drinks that will be served. Some cultures expect beer to be served, while others would frown on it.

Plan the food to fit the venue

The primary purpose of a wake or any other funeral ritual is to offer friends and loved ones the chance to say “goodbye” and move through the grieving process. For this reason, the location of the wake may be a personal decision that should be presented first to the family. Will the wake be held in the family’s home, church, funeral home, or other location? These are all important things to know before planning a menu. If the wake is to be held in the funeral home, simple hors d’oeuvres and coffee may be the best choice. Most funeral homes don’t have a lot of room for dining, so you’ll want to make sure what you serve is portable finger food. Sandwiches, fruits, and other such things should be on the menu. However, if the wake will be held at a church, speak to someone there before you plan. They commonly have dining halls or designated areas for these types of gatherings. Most also have commercial brewers and may even use coffee club services to keep their dining hall stocked with gourmet coffees. In a venue such as this, serving the food buffet style is perfectly acceptable. And, much of the time, church families will contribute various dishes for potluck.

The most important thing to remember when planning a wake is to include the family in your decisions as much as they would like without being intrusive. Speak to extended family members or close friends first to take the weight off of those grieving the most.

Lana Martinez is a freelance technical writer living in the Santa Clara. She's a gadget and tech geek who loves to write how-to articles about a wide range of topics. When she's not writing about technology, Lana loves watching and reading mysteries, cross stitching, and attending musical theatre. She's also an avid Doctor Who fan.