Officially known as the Vigil for the Deceased, the wake service is part of a sequence of funeral rites conducted according to local custom and clergy accessibility—and nowadays, with Covid protocols in place. In the revised Rites of the Catholic Church, these rites all share a dual purpose: to commend the dead to God and to support Christian hope among the living.
The stations of the funeral rite in their fullest expression recognize significant times and places surrounding the death of a loved one. They include a vigil in the home at the time of death, the laying out of the body, the gathering of relatives and friends for a consoling Liturgy of the Word, the life-affirming sharing of the Eucharist at the church, and the final commendation and burial at the cemetery. These rites presume that spiritual preparation of the sick and dying, and their families, was pastorally administered. In this way, the deceased and the mourners are accompanied through the process of loss and consolation comprehensively.
These three stations of the funeral rite—in the home, in church, and at the cemetery—aren't always geographically possible or culturally appropriate. A second option with two stations is therefore recommended: at the chapel and the gravesite. A third plan has one station: at the home of the deceased. In the United States, the wake service is typically held at a funeral home rather than an individual's home, followed by a funeral Mass and cemetery committal service.
The rites are uncommonly delicate in their recommendations, especially regarding the wake. Family traditions, local customs, and "anything that is good may be used freely" ("Funerals," 2). Some families may want to pray the rosary together or sit in silence; others may include singing and telling stories. Only that which is "alien to the gospel" is discouraged. The central concern is that those gathered have sufficient opportunity to pray and profess their faith.
Whether the vigil takes place in the home or at church, the body of the deceased may be available for viewing or in a closed casket. Cremains may also be placed in a position of respect. Typically a greeting, psalm, Scripture reading, brief homily, general intercessions, and the Lord's Prayer comprise the formal parts of a wake. While a priest or deacon may lead the service, it's also permissible that a lay person do this—and the other funeral rites, too, save the Eucharist itself, when no priest is available.
Scripture: Genesis 23:1-20; 47:28-31; 49:28–50:14; Deuteronomy 34:5-8; 1 Samuel 31:8-13; 2 Samuel 1:11-12, 17-27; Tobit 1:16-20; 2:1-8; 4:4; Sirach 38:9-23; Mark 15:42—16:1; Matthew 26:6-13; Luke 7:11-17; John 11:17-44; 19:38-42
Books: Planning the Catholic Funeral, by Terence P. Curley (Liturgical Press, 2005)
After the Funeral, by Jane Winsch (Paulist Press, 1995)