What to Say at a Wake: Offering Genuine Condolences

When someone dies, their loved ones often hold a wake to say goodbye and celebrate the life of the deceased. This can be a difficult time for those attending, as they may not know what to say or do. 

If you are attending a wake, it is important to express your condolences in a genuine way. In this blog post, we will discuss what to say and how to behave during a wake. This information is also relevant for other funeral-related events such as a viewing or the main funeral.

What is a wake?

wake is a gathering of family and friends to mourn the death of a loved one. It is often held before the funeral, but it can also be held after the funeral or even on its own. 

Wakes can be formal or informal, but they are always a time to remember and celebrate the life of the person who has died. It's an opportunity for people who may never have met before to come together and express their sorrow at the loss of someone they all held dear.

During the wake, there is typically a receiving line for the family, so attendees know who they should share their condolences with. What you say to the family on the receiving line will largely depend on your relationship with the person. The following are some suggested phrases you could say to express your sorrow.

Examples of what to say to the family at a wake

It's important to strike the right tone at a wake. You want to be respectful while also expressing your emotions in the right way. The wake is not about your loss, but about the family's loss, and you are there to support them, not the other way around. Here are a few example phrases you might say at a wake:

"I wish we were meeting under different circumstances. I want you to know that I'm very sorry for your loss and I'm here to help you during this difficult time. I'd love to offer my assistance today, can I help with the cleanup?"

"Your mum was an amazing lady and will be deeply missed. I have so many fond memories of her that I'll cherish forever. Please let me know if there's anything I can do to help you during this time."

"I can't imagine how you're feeling right now, but please know that I'm here for you and I'll do anything I can to help. Your dad was an amazing man and he will be deeply missed."

"Thank you so much for sharing your story with me. Your brother sounds like he was an amazing person. I'm so sorry for your loss and I'll be keeping you in my thoughts."

"Your daughter was such a bright light in this world. I'm so sorry that she's gone, and I'll be keeping you in my thoughts during this difficult time."

"I know words cannot express how you're feeling right now, but please know that I am here for you. If there's anything I can do to help, please don't hesitate to let me know."

What is expected in the receiving line?

The receiving line is where the family of the deceased line up and well-wishers come to offer their condolences. You will usually be asked to sign the guest book and then you will move through the line, shaking hands with or hugging each family member.

It is appropriate to say something personal to each family member if you know them well. If you didn't know them well, a simple phrase such as "I'm so sorry for your loss" will suffice.

It's also common to introduce yourself to the family and let them know how you knew the deceased. Don't assume that they will know who you are. You could also let them know just how important the deceased was to you and what they meant. You can also offer a way you might be able to help the family during their time of need. Offering specific support is often better than a general offer as it makes it easier for the family to accept.

For example, you could say: "Hello, my name is Sarah and I worked with your husband. He was such an amazing man and I'm going to miss him dearly. If you need any help with childcare, please do let me know, my husband and I would be more than happy to help."

What not to say at a wake

While it's important to express your condolences, there are also some things that you should avoid saying.

For example, you should avoid saying anything that could be interpreted as criticism of the deceased. This includes comments about their appearance, habits, or anything else that could be seen as negative. For example, if they had a chequered past or known habits with alcohol or drugs, don't mention these during the wake. While it might be common knowledge, it won't be comforting.

It's also important to avoid saying anything that could be interpreted as an attempt to justify the death. No one wants to hear that their loved one is in a "better place", particularly if the death was sudden.

Additionally, you should avoid imposing your own religious beliefs on the family if they do not share them. You can say that you will pray for the family, for example, but don't make references to heaven or similar unless you know the family shares your beliefs.

Wake etiquette you need to know

While the wake is a sombre occasion, there are still some basic etiquette rules that you should follow.

  • It's important to dress conservatively and avoid anything that could be seen as disrespectful. This means avoiding brightly coloured clothing, short skirts or shorts, and anything else that might be seen as inappropriate. Unless, of course, bright colours are specifically requested by the family. In this case, you should honour their request.
  • Make sure you bring a sympathy card or a gift. If the wake is in a family member's home, you could bring food or flowers.
  • If you attend a wake and don't know the person who was responsible for organising it, always make sure you introduce yourself. You should also try to be a helpful guest and offer to assist with things like laying out the food or cleaning up.
  • Don't make requests of anyone at the wake. Unless you are with someone who has mobility issues and you need to help them in some way, try to keep requests to a minimum. For example, if you need a napkin, look for one rather than asking. You won't be the only one asking for them, so try to be a helpful guest by finding where they are stored. And if they don't have any, you could take the initiative to go and buy some.

Saying goodbye at a wake

It might not always be appropriate to say goodbye at a wake. There is a good chance the family will be occupied with other guests coming and going, so you may be able to leave discreetly without making a fuss.

If you have offered to stay to the end to help with cleaning up, make sure you follow up on this offer. Don't assume that someone else will have offered the same thing. It would be all too easy for everyone to assume that someone else will do it and then the family is left with the cleanup.