Monday, August 13, 2012

On Weddings

This weekend I had the pleasure of officiating the wedding ceremony for my brother-in-law and his bride, in Athens, Ohio.

Before we go any further, I just want to add this: No, thank you for asking, I won't conduct yours.

On the day-of, I received the following FB message:
HI Dave- I am officiating a wedding in November... do you have any recommendations or have you written about your officiant experiences anywhere? I'm really stoked about the one I'm doing, but as my first, feeling a little green. Would love to hear your take on it. 
No, I haven't written about it! And I jotted down a few hastily written suggestions off the top of my head, which I will expand upon here. Maybe someone will get some use out of them.

First, however, some background. Officiating a wedding is no big deal, legally speaking. Any couple (any straight couple, at least today) can get married at city hall, then have a party that has all the trappings of a wedding, which anyone can conduct.

However, if you want someone to marry you, to sign the document and make it legal, they must be an ordained minister, and register with (in this case) the Secretary of State of Ohio. In 2005 Josh and Kelly asked me to wed them, and I found out how it was done.

Founded in 1959, the Universal Life Church believes every individual should be a church unto his/herself. To that end, they will ordain anyone a minister. In the old days, it was mail order - today you can be ordained online. Right now. In moments. Go ahead, do it! It's free, even.

You must cleave to their solitary tenant, Do only that which is right. I have followed this commandment, since 2005, every moment of every day, without fail.

Then I paid for proof of ordination (five bucks) to send to Columbus (another ten bucks) and I have a certificate stating I may perform legal marriage in the state of Ohio.

I have conducted services for a few people. Very close friends, one of my brothers and his wife. I take it seriously. I mean, I am not a noodge, I am also not religious and do not pretend to be. But I had a false-start marriage in the early 90s ... without going into any detail, the service was much too clever. A close inspection (unfortunately, it was videotaped ... thought fortunately mine was accidentally damaged beyond repair) gave several close to me the opportunity to judge the kind of humor we had injected into the ceremony and found it very telling.

These are some tips I gave my friend, which were very helpful to me last Saturday, as my wife and I were even then writing and re-writing the ceremony that afternoon.

1. I interview the couple, together, asking them very basic, personal questions. Why are you getting married? Why are you marrying this person? Why do you love this person? What is the goal? I get them to tell some stories, how did you meet, begin dating, propose, etc. Whatever they say is always golden. I take notes.

2. I ask them what they want to have happen. How many traditional aspects of the wedding ceremony do they want to include? Technically, they do not need to include any of them. None. No one needs to say "I do." They do need to get the marriage certificate, and when I sign it, they are legally married. Everything else is a public declaration of fealty.

3. Vows should definitely be included. I make them write their own vows, but often edit them. I feel free to make them start all over if they feel to generic, or too clever. I once told a groom his vows could be said be virtually anyone, and to search a little deeper for what was important, and what he was promising. His second pass was perfect.

Honesty and sincerity are key. I once dropped the final vow because it was an attempt to gently threaten the other if they weren't faithful. And the fact is, I tried to put in the same kind of vow in my first wedding and our officiant insisted on taking it out.

4. This is not about me. Making references to my connection to them gives the attendants some indication as to why I have been asked to do this, but really -- no stories about me, about my life, about my family or marriage. It's all about their lives and feelings.

5. It is about both of them, not just one of them. Sometimes this is challenging, not with friends like Kelly and Josh, for example, who I know equally, but I needed to know more about my brother's intended, and my brother-in-law's this weekend. I don't want to run the risk of talking too long about just one of them. Then again, I don't want to run the risk of doing much talking at. I'm not a minister, I am a happy interlocutor. I am there to speak for them because they are nervous and emotional and scared.

6. Explain, in one sentence, why we're doing everything we're doing. This is why we're here. This is why we make vows. This is why we exchange rings. It gives a brief, sometimes surprise-filled event structure, and makes everyone -- the couple, but also the crowd -- feel like it all makes sense.

7. Finally, what else do they want? Sometimes, like this weekend, that was about it. My wife included a Libation Ritual, to absent friends and family, which went over very well. We concluded with the kiss, and it was time for a party.

But people like music, or poems, or verses ... but I feel it is best, for a simple ceremony, the know that these are things you choose to include, because they express something and that people are happy to hear. Feeling that they must be included can add a lot of pressure.

Sure, the entire event can be stressful, I feel responsible for someone else's wedding. But I also know that everyone is very excited to be there, about whatever it is I have to say -- most of which was written by or about the wedding couple -- and there really is no way to disappoint.

However, it is because I take this seriously, that I try to politely decline when a kind stranger approaches me following a ceremony (usually before I can reach the bar) to ask to conduct their wedding. They want me to marry them because I appear competent at it, and I am flattered by that. But I only want to participate in a wedding in this manner when, as they say, I have skin in the game.


  1. As someone who is planning a wedding, and thinking of asking a close friend of ours to officiate, this is helpful. He is a history guy, not a writer, but he can talk nicely.

    Jon keeps talking about planning the ceremony and I keep flailing and avoiding it because it's Big and Scary and I have no idea what to say or how to say it.

    So thanks cousin!

  2. Talking nicely is very important! I am sure it will be a beautiful event ... and I am sure your life will be so much less fraught when it is over. But look forward to it!

  3. Fantastic, many thanks to you Dave! :)ck