What Is A Vigil: Quick Guide To A Vigil

what is a vigil
A vigil is a gathering that allows the public to show their support. Often associated with the death of a loved one, vigils can take many forms and offer friends, family, and the public, the chance to celebrate the life of the individual. The term is also applied to rituals held on the eve of a holy day, but is also a watch before imminent death until burial.

Vigils are a time to remember, a time of reflection and prayer. The term often hits the news when people choose to gather to pray or protest after an event. Recent vigils have occurred to protest the war in Ukraine, school shootings, police brutality, abortion rights, and many other causes.

They are a great way to honor someone who has passed away, remember a group of people, pray as a group, or protest an event. Vigils can be used as a devotional exercise to show your dedication to a person or thing and are often held overnight and by candlelight for added impact.

George Floyd vigil

What Does The Term Vigil Mean?

The term “vigil” comes from the Latin “vigilia,” which literally means “wakefulness” or “sleeplessness.” The general definition of vigil is to stay awake when you usually would be sleeping, and it is done in particular when one wants to pray. It may be used with the Latin word “vigēre” (to be lively), which is essential, so you stay awake during the vigil.

Check out your thesaurus, and you will find that synonyms include “observance,” “awareness,” “duty,” and “guard” are appropriate when you consider how the term is used to describe three types of “purposeful sleepiness” or watchfulness:

  • Devotional watching Before certain holy days
  • Sitting with the dead or dying near the time of death
  • Gathering in a protest

A vigil provides a time of remembrance for people. There are many different ways in which a vigil is held. A candlelight vigil, for example, is often held in memory of someone. There are also prayer or devotions vigils where prayers are offered for an intended purpose.

Irish wake 1804
Irish wake 1804

What Does Keeping A Vigil Mean?

Keeping a vigil means sitting alongside someone or something for an extended period of time. While you are keeping watch, you do not move unless absolutely necessary. A night vigil sometimes is accompanied by candlelight (hence the term candlelight vigil.)

Vigils are common in many cultures. There is a Greek term agrypnia which means to chase sleep. Since those sitting vigil are often up all night, that is a great description. The Greeks held vɪdʒɪls or vigils, using oil-burning vigil lamps to illuminate the space as the vigil happened.

If someone sits somewhere for an extended period of time as they await something, they are said to keep vigil or sit vigil. For example, during the Middle Ages, it was common for squires awaiting knighthood to perform rituals such as bathing, fasting, and making a confession before undergoing an all-night vigil of prayer in the chapel to prepare himself for his life as a knight.

Are Vigils A Biblical Concept?

The word “vigil” is actually only used twice in the Bible. The first speaks of waiting to honor the Lord and describes a night vigil. The second describes the constant vigil of a farmer waiting to reap what he has sown.

  • “It was a night of vigil in honor of the Lord because He would bring them out of the land of Egypt. This same night is in honor of the Lord, a night vigil for all the Israelites throughout their generations.” Exodus 12:42
  • “So wait patiently, brothers and sisters, until the coming of the Lord. The farmer waits [expectantly] for the precious harvest from the land, being patient about it until it receives the early and late rains.” James 5:7

However, the concept of “watching vigil” or “keeping vigil” is used at least 19 times.

Easter vigil on Holy Saturday

What Is A Vigil In Religious Traditions?

Vigils figure in many religious traditions.

  • Holy Days: In certain religions, such as Catholicism, vigils are held on days such as Holy Saturday, the night before Easter Sunday. The Easter Vigil is an example of a devotion vigil on the eve of a religious festival.

    However, Lutheran, Anglican, Methodist, and Eastern Orthodox churches hold vigils of this type as well.
  • Wakes: In the Roman Catholic Church, a vigil is another term for a wake. The vigil happens after death and before the funeral and burial and is a devotional watching.

    Historically, Irish wakes, which became quite social, were held to celebrate the life of the deceased, honor their death, make sure it occurred, ward off evil, and put their soil at peace.

    Holding vigils is not just for Christians. Jews keep watch the night after someone dies until the burial service so that the decade is not left alone. When a Muslim is dying, loved ones surround them to help reinforce their belief in Allah.

How Are Vigils Used In Modern Times As Political Statements

Vigils are used in modern times in many different capacities.

  • Death: When an important figure passes away, memorials are often held to pay tribute to the person who died. Sometimes there is a greater cause at stake, such as when a person dies by domestic violence, and people come out in large numbers to a candlelight vigil to pay tribute.
  • Memorials: Although this is also a death situation, it can be framed a bit differently. When the Twin Towers collapsed, and people came out to pay tribute to all of those who died at the memorial, this is another type of vigil. Candlelight vigils are often held on the anniversary of 9/11.
  • Political Statement: Sometimes, a vigil is intentionally held to make a political statement or point. An example is when Matthew Shepard was killed simply for being a young, gay man. People appeared in droves to make a political statement as well as show their love and support.
Uvalde, TX school shooting

What Are Examples of Modern Vigils

There are many modern examples of vigils. On the anniversary of the death of George Floyd, for example, a vigil was held at the intersection where he died. Attendees were silent for the 8 seconds a police officer held foot on the man’s neck. There have been remembrance vigils on the anniversaries since.

A vigil was likewise held at Uvalde schools when residents gathered in a show of love, strength, and solidarity in light of the tragedy after the school shooting.

Just Google “vigils at the White House,” and you will find a plethora of events where people stand vigil to get the attention of the United States government. Anti-war protests are popular vigils around the world.

Large cities such as New York City host many vigils. One large one is held every April in remembrance of victims of violence.


Pam Berg is a former English teacher with a passion for writing. She has written for many years on a variety of topics and considers herself to be somewhat of a jack of all trades when it comes to writing. Although most of us tend to want to avoid the topic of death, whether it is us or a loved one, it is inevitable. Pam is dedicated to ensuring that as people are funeral planning they have access to a no-nonsense, straightforward laying out of the facts. However, she also recognizes that this is a topic that needs to be approached in a sensitive manner.

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