In many cultures, it’s traditional to hold a vigil in honor of someone who’s died. Sometimes it’s a religious service, but you can also hold a secular vigil. In this article, we’ll explore what a vigil is, different types of vigils, and the specifics of holding a vigil for a loved one.

A complete guide to vigils for death

The definition of a vigil is to “keep awake” or watch over, especially overnight, and often refers to watching over someone who is close to death or is deceased. There are two main types of vigils. The first one is a vigil for death and is held after someone has died. We'll focus on this type of vigil in this article. Another type of vigil is a vigil before death, which takes place when someone is ill or close to death.

Vigils are a special time for family and friends to honor the transition into death. Typically, the body is present, and family and friends can share and connect over their love of the deceased.

Vigils, or wakes, are a common practice in Catholic funeral traditions and customs. However, a vigil for death doesn’t have to be religious — it’s simply a way for loved ones to gather and bear witness to someone’s death. It can be a more formal event held in a place of worship or a funeral home, or it can be a more relaxed and intimate gathering at someone’s home. The vigil for death takes place in the first few days after someone dies. It usually lasts between a few hours and three days. People can drop by and pay their respects during that time.

What happens at a vigil for death?

A vigil is a quiet and solemn event to gather and mourn. What happens at a vigil for death can vary based on the preferences of the family and where it’s held. 

When holding a vigil in someone’s home, the attendees may simply sit together quietly, or they may share stories and memories of the person who’s died. There can be songs and readings at a vigil, too. The room may be decorated with flowers and candles, and there may be pictures of the deceased on display. 

For a religious vigil service held at a place of worship, a priest typically shares prayers and religious readings in a more formal service. For example, at a Catholic vigil, it’s traditional to recite the rosary and read passages from the Bible. The altar area might also be decorated with candles and flowers.

What to bring to a vigil

If you’re attending a vigil, you don’t normally need to bring anything. However, you may choose to take flowers or a gift for the family. You might also be invited to give donations for a chosen charity or cause. If you’re unsure, check with the people organizing the vigil.

When to have a vigil for death

A vigil for death often takes place one to three days after the death and before the funeral. Since there are arrangements to be made before the vigil and funeral, it can take place when it’s most convenient for those hosting it, as there is no set time for it to happen. For candlelight vigils, these can take place after the funeral or even on the anniversary of the death.

What is a vigil service?

While a vigil for death may last a few days, a vigil service is a Catholic prayer service led by a priest. If the vigil lasts a few days at someone’s home, the priest will attend during that time to perform the vigil service. Or it could take place in a church. A vigil service usually takes place the evening before the funeral. This follows the Catholic tradition of vigil masses, which are held late at night before a Sunday or feast day.

Home vigil services

A vigil of death may take place in the home, with or without the body present. A home vigil gives loved ones the chance to gather during a difficult time without the formality of a funeral service. People can talk, mourn, and share happy memories in a place they feel comfortable.

Candlelight vigil services

A candlelight vigil is a common way to remember someone who’s passed away as a result of a tragedy. For example, public candlelight vigils are often held for victims of accidents or natural catastrophes. 

Candlelight vigils are held at night and are often open to anyone who feels affected by the tragedy, even if they didn’t know the person or people personally. It can be a comforting way to bring the community together following a traumatic event. During this powerful event, people stand together quietly holding candles. Speeches or readings may be shared as well.

How long do candlelight vigils last?

Candlelight vigils usually last 30-60 minutes. This provides enough time for speeches, readings, music (if desired), and moments of silence and remembrance.

Do you bring your own candles to a vigil?

It depends on what the organizers have decided. When they publicize the event, they might say whether you need to bring your own candle. Check the details for the event to see whether it states if candles are provided.

What is a vigil before death?

A vigil before death is a time to gather around a loved one or family member who is ill or close to death. It’s a time to sit quietly and show your support as they transition so they are not alone. You can say quiet prayers or just be present during this time.

Holding a vigil for death for a loved one

If you’d like to hold a vigil for your loved one, you’ll need to do a few things:

·   Let people know when and where the vigil will take place. This can be shared on social media, through emails and phone calls, or through your network of friends. You can also ask those at your place of worship to share the news.

·   Get a casket or shroud for the body, if applicable.

·   Arrange preparation and transport of the body, if the body will be present at the vigil.

·   Collect any flowers, photos, candles, and other decorations you’d like to display and ask someone to set up beforehand so you don’t have to do this.

·   Organize any prayers, music, or readings you’d like to have at the vigil. Ask friends and family to read or sing these pieces, and let me know at what point during the vigil they’ll share.

·   If it’s a candlelight vigil, buy candles and holders or ask people to bring their own. Also, make sure you have a way to light the candles during the event and a plan to either collect them afterward or let the attendees take the candles home.

These tasks can feel overwhelming, especially when you’ve just lost someone you love. Don’t be afraid to reach out to friends and family for help. If you’re also hosting a funeral or memorial service, the funeral director or worship leader may be able to support you in planning the vigil as well.

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