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What is a Vigil?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 23, 2024
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A vigil is a period of intentional wakefulness set aside for religious contemplation, prayer, and other devotional activities. Many cultures have some sort of vigil tradition in their religious beliefs, suggesting that the idea of staying awake for religious observances is appealing to many people, regardless as to their cultural background. The idea of the vigil has also been adopted in some communities to refer to any period of time specifically set aside for contemplation and watchfulness, whether or not it requires staying awake at unusual times.

The word "vigil" is derived from the Middle English vigile, which means "devotional watching." This word in turn comes from the Latin vigil, which means "awake." People have been staying awake for religious purposes for centuries, as ample works of art and writings prove, and periods of vigil continue to be an important part of many religions.

In many cultures, it is traditional to sit in vigil over the dead, so that they are not left alone before burial, cremation, or any other form of disposition. Typically the dead are laid out in a church or a formal room in a home, and people may take turns sitting vigil, or sit up together. During vigils for the dead, people may observe silent contemplation, or they may pray, socialize, and talk about the dead. This tradition is still observed in many cultures, with the end of the vigil being marked by the funeral.

Vigils have also historically been held on the eve of major religious holidays. Eastern Orthodox Christians often observe this tradition by gathering outside their churches on the eve of big holidays, waiting for the church to open for a midnight mass and celebration, and some people also observe such vigils at home. Vigils have also been used to set time aside for contemplation before a major life event, like a wedding or an entry into military service.

In some cultures, vigils are also used as a form of protest, and to increase community awareness. People may sit in vigil after an unjust death, for example, signaling their discontent to a community, and many communities gather for candlelight vigils after tragedies to give people a chance to connect with each other. While this type of vigil departs somewhat from a vigil in the traditional religious sense, many people find such vigils very valuable, as they can provide an outlet for intense emotions.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a InfoBloom researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By letshearit — On May 04, 2011

Does anyone know some famous examples of vigils that have been held recently?

By wander — On May 03, 2011

For those who want to organize a vigil remember to check with your local police about laws regarding public gatherings. Often you will need a permit to have one. It depends on how many people are coming and your location.

Also, to run things smoothly, I'd suggest making a schedule, as many people often want to speak during a vigil. A core group of volunteers can help organize everything you'll need. Things such as refreshments are an important practicality to remember.

As a tip, if you want your event to be open to the public, remember to contact your local paper. They are often looking for human-interest stories and will help you publicize your event.

By lonelygod — On May 01, 2011

I remember when one of the students at our high school passed away during our final year. We organized a candlelight vigil with our classmates and the local community to remember his life, as well as what he had accomplished in his short time with us.

While I wasn't close to him, I did help organize the event. It was really a rewarding experience. I think that vigils help groups on a deeply emotional level and help bring closure when used in such a way.

By anon169828 — On Apr 23, 2011

Vigil - The meaning of vigil is explained in a nice manner. Rosario R.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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