Together 'Til Death Do Them Part
I've officiated a few weddings in which one or the other party was terminal. I recall a bride who had cancer. Her doctors had predicted she had only a year to live. This couple made the most of their celebration with beautiful clothes and a fancy venue, a posh hotel in downtown Portland, with guests attending from near and as far away as Japan. Most notably, there was a lot of love between the bride and groom. It had to be bittersweet.
On another occasion I received a call to officiate a deathbed wedding later the same day in a hospital. The man was apparently in the final stages of his illness. He and the bride had been together for over 20 years and he had wanted them to be legally married before he passed. I expect this was partly to provide for her in the way of benefits, which I find admirable. Naturally, I made sure he was of sound mind and knew why I was there before proceeding. I had been prepared for a sad tone for this wedding, but everyone was surprisingly upbeat. They put on their bravest, smiling faces. She and her mother, a sibling, and a spouse were all there to witness, and were quite supportive. He had clearly been considered part of the family for years.
Then there was a deathbed wedding I had officiated in which the couple were both fine—it was his mom who was nearing her end. Her dying wish was to live long enough to see her son get married. He and his longtime girlfriend simply took Mom’s request as the inspiration needed to make it official. They didn't have time to get a license, so I did a non-legally recognized ceremony at Mom's bedside in a care facility. The peaceful smile on her face when she heard me pronounce them husband and wife (symbolically, of course) was priceless. A few days later after they obtained their license, I met them again in a different location and officiated their legal wedding. Interestingly, they reported that Mom had still not passed at that point. Possibly a part of her was still hanging on, wanting to make sure her son was legally and officially wed before she could die in peace.
Two other weddings come to mind, which I performed in my office/chapel. Both were May-Decembers. In each case, the 75-plus-year-old groom arrived by medical transport in a Hoveround in order to marry a 40-something-year-old bride. In the first instance, it was obvious he was marrying his caregiver, possibly as a way to thank her. There did not appear to be a romantic relationship between them; she gave him a quick kiss on the cheek after I pronounced them. She also gave me a hug afterward and thanked me for not judging her.
For the other May-December couple, it was purportedly true love, though I have often wondered about that one. Was she really in love with him, or was she more in love with the notion of gaining her new husband’s financial assets? Despite my reservations, it is still not my place to judge. Believe me, I made sure to ask specific questions of that elderly groom to satisfy myself that he knew what he was doing. If both parties are of sound mind and if the proper paperwork is presented, I will go forward with the wedding. It is my job to help a couple tie the knot, not to judge their motivations. That is between them and their conscience—or between them and God, for those of a religious persuasion. Either way, after I do my job, the rest is up to them.
Same Sex Wedding, a Name Changer
With the demise of DOMA and approval of same-sex marriage across several states, the times they are a changing for sure! Same-sex marriage is a game changer, and a name changer as well. Those of us who craft words have had to invent some new language for wedding ceremonies. I’ve joined several same sex couples in symbolic “marriages of the heart” here in Oregon where such unions are not yet legally recognized. I’ve also officially wed several others in Washington State where they recently won that legal right.
When interviewing same-sex couples in order to customize their ceremony, I’ve had to revise my questionnaire a bit. “Bride” and “groom,” has become Bride #1 and Bride #2 (or Groom #1 and Groom #2). Beyond that, there is a wide variety of preferences of terminology from couple to couple. When asking two women, for example, how they would like to be referred to in their ceremony—I’ve offered some suggestions: “wife,” “partner,” “beloved,” “spouse?” The responses have been a mixture of “yes’s” and “no’s,” some of them quite strong, on the term “wife,” in particular. One who had been with her partner for over a quarter century, was emphatic: “No way, we’re too feminist for that!”
I’ve even had two females who wanted to be referred to as “husband and wife.” Husband, really? But it was not surprising when I met them on their wedding day. One wore her hair in long, flowing curls and dressed like a traditional bride—in a long, elegant white gown, and she carried a beautiful bouquet of flowers. Her “husband,” on the other hand, sported a short haircut, and white tux pinned with a boutonniere. If not for the womanly voice of the latter, I might have thought she was a he.
I notice the State of Washington had to revise it’s form as well. There are still two sides on the form, with spaces for each of the party’s names, date and place of birth, parents’ names, etc. But instead of the previously-stated “husband” and “wife,” this has been revised to, “Person A” and “Person B.”
One other unique wedding that raised a gender issue comes to mind. The groom was a transsexual, or at least that was his legal status. Technically he was a hermaphrodite or to use the modern term, “intersex.” He openly shared his story with me. He had been born with both boy parts and girl parts, he said, and it was up to his parents to decide his gender. They had chosen to raise him as a girl. Other than remembering that as a kid he cried when they dressed him in a frilly dress, he had been pretty much okay living as a “she” until puberty, when male hormones kicked in and became predominant, resulting in a low masculine voice and facial hair—but ironically, he also grew breasts. His girlfriend fell in love with him as a man. They asked me to perform their wedding, a symbolic-only union because his birth certificate and ID still list him as female. There is a legal process to go through as well as some surgery before he can fully transition and legally become a male. Interestingly, this couple brought their child to their wedding. I have no idea whether the groom was a step-parent claiming the role and title of Dad, if there was a natural birth, adoption, or even surrogacy—nor did I dare to ask! If someone wants to volunteer information, that's one thing, but I'm not one to pry.
Whether it’s a traditional marriage between a man and a woman, or a same-sex union with or without the State’s blessing, it is my honor to help couples declare their love and lifetime commitment as partners, under whatever label they prefer. Yes, the times they are a changing, and I say thank God for that! And, by the way, I will not make any God references for those desiring a nonreligious ceremony. I just substitute the word “love” where I might have said “God,” and really, to me it means the same thing. There is no need to get hung up on names and labels. The only thing that matters, no matter what you call it, is love, the primary essence that unites us all.
What to Wear and Should it Matter?
I firmly believe in minding my own business on a couple’s wedding preferences. This includes whether and when to marry, whom to invite to the wedding, and what to wear. That last item can cause some discomfort for traditional folks who have fixed ideas on what is proper wedding attire. The fact is here in Oregon many of us are pretty laid back. At local weddings I’ve seen my share of tank tops, shorts and flip-flops among the guests—and sometimes the couple themselves. I prefer to follow the old adage of not passing judgment until I’ve walked a mile in their moccasins—or possibly socks with sandals, a common fashion misstep in these parts!
Anything goes, really. I see all kinds from brides who arrive in a big ball gown that practically takes up half the chapel, to couples that dress like they are on the way to the beach—and quite possibly they are. I would never dream of judging a couple’s fashion statement. It is only my job to help them tie the knot in whatever style is comfortable to them. I have no idea what’s happening in their world or what is behind their choices. However, when they share their story, sometimes it can be very illuminating.
Case in point was a couple who arrived for their elopement-style wedding both dressed in t-shirts, cutoffs and tennies. Their demeanor was just as casual. The bride kept cracking jokes during the ceremony, like: "Can I skip that part?" And when I was talking about life-long commitment, she said, “He gets five years and then we will have to renegotiate!” They were laughing the whole time, she especially.
Afterward she shared with me that she's been diagnosed with a brain tumor. She showed me the scar on her scalp from her surgery; at least she got to keep most of her hair. Her docs have given her five years to live. I see now that humor is her way of coping. My heart goes out to both of them. I don’t care what they wear on their big day. What really matters and what I so respect in the groom in particular, is his heart full of love and devotion for his new wife, while knowing he is likely to lose her all to soon. The courage and grace with which they face an uncertain future is a wonderful thing and should be an inspiration to us all. I wish this brave couple all the best in their journey together.
The Long and the Short of it
Have you ever noticed that weddings seem to be getting shorter? Short and sweet is what many couples want, and the most guests appreciate it, too. It’s kinder at outdoor ceremonies where everyone is made to bake in the sun or when restless children are involved. That said, there is also such a thing as too short—which may not be so sweet. The guests will likely feel shortchanged if the wedding becomes just a blip on the screen.
I have always made it a practice to send couples a script of their ceremony beforehand. This leaves some tinkering room if they want to add or omit a poem or other ceremony segment and to make sure the language reflects their style. Some couples panic when they get five pages of script, assuming that the wedding is going to be an hour long. I’ve seen them start snipping and cutting until there’s not much left. So I tell them I will do it that short if they really really want me to, but my original script would not translate into a wedding that is nearly as long as they think.
First of all, I use a large type font so I can easily read it on their big day; that fills more sheets of paper. Secondly, it takes very little time to read through text. Five pages amounts to about ten minutes, tops, even when I speak slowly and deliberately as I will on their big day. If there’s a huge wedding party, the processional can add a bit more time. But even if there’s a long distance to cover and they space out the bridesmaids and groomsmen rather than bunching up, the whole parade rarely lasts longer than two to three minutes.
Candle lightings take a minute or so and sand ceremonies slightly longer, particularly if children or other family members participate. Still, it normally does not amount to more than a couple of extra minutes. Poetry readings may take a minute or two each. For couples who choose an additional two or three ceremony elements such as a ring warming, presentation of flowers to moms, or a wine ceremony, all told, these will likely add only a few minutes. In my experience, the entire ceremony from processional through recessional rarely exceeds 20 minutes. More often it is 10-15.
What is much more likely to eat up time at a wedding is the waiting beforehand. Uncle So-and-So takes the wrong exit and is retracing his steps on the freeway; or I’ll get everyone lined up and invariably a member of the bridal party will be MIA in the rest room; or the bride has a wardrobe malfunction and/or her hairdo won’t do what she wants. There are lots of reasons why a wedding may take more time than expected, but it won’t be because I’ve gotten longwinded! I will leave long discourses to the orators and sermons to the preachers. As a wedding officiant, I vow that my words will be elegant and yet succinct. I will make the ceremony long enough to convey the meaning and feeling, and short enough to keep everyone awake.
Love Among the Felons
A recent bride told me she was so glad to have found our little chapel for her second marriage. She explained that she wanted a simple civil ceremony, which we are happy to offer. But she definitely wanted to skip the courthouse setting she’d chosen the first time around. That wedding was apparently interspersed between divorces; when the clerk had announced the next item of business on the judge’s docket, he had called them up as, “Smith vs. Brown.” She should have known then that the marriage was doomed, she told me!
Some courthouse weddings might be sweet, and judges friendly. But a couple cannot expect immediate service. First of all, they may not always get right in. During busy times it may take weeks to get on the docket. Then once there, it may take awhile for their turn to come up. And they may not be the only ones waiting. I’ve heard about criminals also hanging around in the courtroom, waiting for their cases to be heard. One couple joked that their courthouse wedding was “love among the felons.” That gives a whole new meaning to the term “ball and chain!”
Then, too, courthouse weddings by nature are very brief, virtually no more than a blip on the screen in a busy judge’s day. After all, the court has to work you in around other important business. With us, a couple is our only and most important business--and you won't have to wait. Once you have your marriage license, we can often marry you the very same day (though you will need to get a waiver of the 3-day waiting period--just ask the clerk when you get your license). Even if you prefer short and sweet, we will make your wedding warm and personal, something to remember fondly as you begin your married life together.
I'm the founding minister of Wedded Your Way. I love helping people tie the knot!