Etiquette: It's not polite to stare -- or to confront the person staring

For the News-DemocratNovember 18, 2013 

Q. I recently went out to lunch with some girlfriends for our quarterly get together. From where I sat, I could see a couple at a table across the wide aisle. My girlfriends and I were having a good time catching up with what we have all been doing, but every time I happened to look at my girlfriend across from me, I could see this woman at that table looking at me. I felt like she was staring at me.

I began to feel a little uncomfortable but shrugged it off and I didn't mention it to my girlfriends. The man with her had his back to me. Eventually my girlfriend sitting next to me leaned over and whispered to me asking if I knew the woman across the aisle because she kept looking at me. I told her I didn't and we continued our lunch, but I then I knew it wasn't just my imagination.

Should I have gotten up to go to the ladies room and stopped at that table to ask her if she knew me? She did not look familiar, but maybe I had met her and not remembered.

A. Definitely not. Ignoring this woman to the best of your ability was definitely the proper decision. Staring at another person is extremely rude behavior and very inappropriate. Most people are taught not to stare at another person from a very early age, either by their parents or teachers. For an adult to stare at another person is inexcusable.

Confronting this woman in any fashion, albeit it very politely, to address why you felt she was staring at you, would have been equally inappropriate. It also could have instigated a very unpleasant and embarrassing situation.

Q. I grew up in the St. Louis area, then moved to the East Coast after college. I have now returned to this area. While on the East Coast, I heard people refer to the meal for family and friends following a funeral as a "wake." Now that I am back, I hear people referring to "wake" the same as a viewing or visitation of the deceased before the funeral. What is the proper terminology?

A. The evolution meaning of the term "wake" has evolved through history.

For example, as far back as the mid-17th century, there are stories about supposed deceased individuals "awakening" before being buried, or in many cases, after being buried. Often screams could be heard from beneath the ground in cemeteries. It was not that anyone intentionally buried someone who was still alive, but the medical knowledge and equipment at the time was insufficient to determine whether an individual was actually dead or perhaps in a coma. Therefore, in some cases, the individual was mistakenly pronounced dead when he wasn't, and was buried alive.

As the stories circulated about these horrid events, a family member or bereaving friend would actually sit by the body that was normally, placed in a coffin in the home of the deceased, a family member or a friend, watching to see if the person would awaken. In some locations, an individual was hired, or volunteered to routinely sit in cemeteries to listen for possible noises from the graves. There were also bells put on top of the graves in some cases, with a string leading inside the coffin, so that buried person could ring the bell and be rescued.

Some historians say the term "wake" originated from the Middle English term: "wakien, waken" or from the Old English term: "wacan" or "wacian."

In Germany, and various areas in the United States, the word "wake" is believed to have come from an Old High German word, "wahta" meaning "watch" or "vigil."

Regardless of the origination of the term, it meant the same: watching or waiting to see if the deceased was really dead or would awaken. This vigil or wake time could have been a day or two before the burial. Naturally, the individual or individuals conducting the vigil would need something to eat and drink during that time, and during the mourning and prayers, kind words about the deceased would be expressed and stories told to help the bereaved through the process.

Other family and friends would drop by during this wake period to "view" the deceased one more time, or "visit" with that person, and to express their condolences to the immediate family. Depending on how far they had traveled or how long they stayed, they, too, would be invited to share food.

As the years passed and medicine progressed to the point where the pronouncement of death was more accurate and final, the terms: "wake," "viewing" and "visitation" became synonymous, especially in Canada and the United States as the event which takes place prior to the burial.

A meal after the funeral and burial, with the opportunity for family and close friends to gather and share food together and provide condolences and comfort to one another has become more of the tradition today in most areas of our country. This gathering is most often referred to as a "reception or lunch" and the invitation is usually verbally extended by the officiating pastor, on behalf of the deceased's family, at the conclusion of the funeral or after the burial at the cemetery.

An informal verbal invitation can also be extended by the deceased family members or a family friend prior to the funeral.

In some areas of our country however, the term "wake" might continue to refer to the meal and gathering after the funeral.

As to which term is the most appropriate, and to avoid asking what might be an embarrassing question, refer to the death announcements and obituaries in the paper.

Dianne Isbell is a local contributing writer. Send your etiquette questions to Lifestyle Editor Pat Kuhl, Belleville News-Democrat, P.O. Box 427, 120 S. Illinois St., Belleville, IL 62222-0427. Or email to

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