This term for the gathering of family and friends upon the death of someone close is generally thought to come from the Old English *wacu, or watch. The word, however, does not actually appear in texts until the Middle English period. (The * is standard etymological notation meaning that the word has been reconstructed by modern linguists and is believed to have existed, although no actual appearances have been found in extant literature.) Family and friends would maintain a prayer watch, or vigil, over the corpse. The use of the word to mean such a funeral vigil dates to John Lydgate’s Chronicle of Troy from the early 15th century:
What shulde I now any lenger dwelle...for to telle...of þe pleies called palestral, Nor þe wrastelyng þat was at þe wake?
(What should I now any longer dwell…for to tell…of the plays called palestral [athletic games], Nor the wrestling that was at the wake?)
The use of the noun wake to mean a general prayer vigil, not specifically related to a funeral and often accompanied by fasting, is a few centuries older, first appearing in the Middle English prose dialogue Vices and Vertues, c.1200:
Mid fasten, oððer mid wake.
(Mid fast, or mid wake.)
Yet again, the piece of email lore titled Life in the 1500s registers a specious explanation. It claims that lead drinking cups and alcohol would knock people out for several days. Therefore they were laid out for several days to determine if they were actually dead or if they would wake up.
(Source: Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition)
Copyright 1997-2015, by David Wilton