What is a Vigil?

It is a time when close friends and family members sit continuously for one to three days near the body of a loved one who has died. To honor the loved one, flowers, candles, photos, and a few cherished possessions beautify the room where the body rests.  A vigil provides an opportunity to say goodbye, reflect quietly, and allow emotions– grief, anger, disappointment, even relief or joy—to be felt. It allows space for acceptance of what has occurred. Most people experience a sense of peace and spiritual presence pervading the room.

Many cultures and faiths believe that the soul needs time to depart from the body at death. A day-and-night vigil (when it’s practical and reasonable to hold) with readings, poetry, music and prayer allows for this natural process to occur in a gentle and supportive way.


Practical Suggestions

We recommend holding a private vigil for at least twenty-four hours. People can take shifts to sit with the body so that each person also can sleep.

After the first day of a private vigil, family or close friends may wish to include the wider community in an experience of public mourning.. Other people may then flow through the home, funeral home or church.

Common sense needs to be part of any decision regarding a vigil. Family members may be exhausted from their effort to be there during the dying process. Their sleep and recovery are priorities. Friends and acquaintances may offer needed support by caring for the body, scheduling shifts, bringing food, and tending to children. A vigil offers a healing opportunity of service for everyone.

Some things to do during a vigil:

  • Read sacred text/poetry
  • Listen to music/sing/play an instrument
  • Pray/meditate
  • Write in a journal, Draw in a sketchbook
  • Be present in the silence
  • Feel your emotions. Be open to what the experience brings
  • Share quietly with others memories and stories about the loved one


“The Vigil and the Three Days After Death”    

by Nancy Jewel Poer, excerpt from Living into Dying pg. 47-49

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