Monday, July 29, 2013

Three Weddings and a Funeral




The weddings: Alex Falcone/Megan Niermeyer, Rosena Busse/Erik Grove, Melissa Anderson/Michael Dudleston. The funeral (early next month, and not pictured): Marge Jenkins.

In general, I'm not a wedding fan. There are multiple reasons:

1) As a survivor of two divorces and one broken engagement, I'm just emerging from a period of marriage-shyness that has had me questioning the institution even for couples who've successfully practiced it for decades.

2) As a former pastor, I performed far too many weddings that left me with a gut feeling of ambivalence, knowing both that I had inadequately prepared the couple to fulfill their vows and that, even if I had, they were in far too much denial about what marriage means to have really learned anything from my efforts.

3) Also in the former pastor category comes the high stakes impressed upon couples by the wedding industry, all the expensive things that must happen for it to be a successful event. Wedding planners and wedding photographers have, in my experience, driven up the cost of this event far beyond what any young couple and their parents can or should have to pay, and the result is often packed with needless and quickly forgotten frills that detract from the priceless heart of the ceremony: two people making public promises to each other.

4) Philosophically and sociologically, I'm not convinced marriage as we understand it will survive the 21st century.

With all that said, let's talk now about how making weddings be more like funerals may very well save the rite from the industry that has nearly ruined it.

In my pastoral days, I came to hate weddings. Preparation for weddings means two things for a pastor: planning and "counseling." I put the quotes on that word because I can count on one hand the number of couples who were genuinely willing to talk about their relationship with me, to even entertain the thought that it would be good for them to know each other far more intimately than they already did before taking this huge step. We'd dissect the vows together, probing what all those promises made--or at least, I'd be probing. They'd be too twitter-pated to acknowledge that at some point, they would have to test the latter half of "for better for worse." Most couples I married had been together less than a year, not long enough to even know if either of them might suffer from a seasonal mood disorder, or have issues with one of the major holidays. Often they'd be meeting their in-laws for the first time at the wedding. Frequently they had yet to have their first argument. And, I had to admit, I was hardly one to lecture them on the importance of taking their time getting to the altar: I married my first wife ten months after we began dating. My second wedding was twice as fast.

Remember, though, that both marriages ended in divorce. I don't know how many of those quickie weddings I performed "took," and I've really got no way of finding out. What I learned over time was that people who really want to be married will do it. Turn them away from one church, and they'll just keep shopping until they find one that fits their agenda and has a décor that coordinates with their color scheme. (On a sidebar, have you ever tried talking a friend, sibling, or son or daughter out of marrying someone? It typically has the opposite effect, driving the couple together and almost guaranteeing the wedding will happen over your objections.)

Funerals, on the other hand, were enormously rewarding experiences for me as a pastor. Preparing for a funeral begins with listening. Many of the preparation questions are similar, looking for readings and music that resonate with the memory of the deceased. Like weddings, funerals contain standard rituals that are often powerfully symbolic. Also like weddings, there is an industry that has grown up around funerals that can easily drive the price up. Unlike weddings, the content of funerals remains in the hands of the family and the pastor, with the funeral director functioning mostly as a supplier and facilitator.

What makes funerals rewarding for a pastor is the story-telling. Before every funeral I conducted, I had extended meetings with the family of the deceased, and as I talked with them, guided them to a point at which they began to tell stories, often funny, sometimes painful, stories that helped me frame the short sermon I would deliver, but also served as rehearsals for the sharing that would come after I was finished.

It was this sharing that personalized the funeral, as friends and family members reminisce and began the process of resurrecting the loved one within their hearts. It was not uncommon for people to walk away from the funeral with a better understanding of the deceased, informed now by stories they'd never heard before. I fully expect such sharing to be at the heart of Marge Jenkins' memorial service next week, considering her daughter and her son-in-law are the founders of Portland ComedySportz, and that there will be dozens of other improvisers in attendance. This was certainly true of the memorial service I attended three years ago for a ComedySportz couple who were washed away while walking on the Newport jetty. People grieved deeply at that service, but they also laughed, sharing memories of two funny special people who'd made a huge difference for all of them.

Personalization is, in my opinion, what is beginning to rescue weddings from the industry. In all three weddings I attended this summer, there was ample time set aside for sharing stories about the couple, how much they meant both individually and together to those in attendance, and offering up words of encouragement for their new life together. Because of the nature of a wedding, bringing together friends and family members who are often meeting their new in-laws (sometimes including the new bride or groom) for the first time, these stories serve to open hearts and minds, helping families welcome strangers who are suddenly relatives. This was the best part of each event. It didn't always happen during the ceremony--at Alex and Megan's wedding, much of the sharing came during the reception, especially during the toasts--but apart from the vows, it was essential.

Two of these weddings were catered, and involved rented facilities, so it's not as if they were done on the cheap. Even so, there was none of the artifice I've experienced at budget-busting church weddings. The focus of each ceremony was speaking the truth of who these people were, both individually and together, and setting the stage for them to make awe-inspiring promises to each other, the contents of which, in any other setting, would lead even the most romantic individual to say "Yeah, right."

One other piece of all three of these weddings that gives me hope is this: not one of them relied on a professional to conduct the ceremony. In Melissa and Michael's case, it was my brother Jon, also a former minister, who presided, while I took care of the paperwork, but neither of us was representing a church. In the other two weddings, friends of the couple did the honors. This is happening a lot in Oregon, where it's simple to apply for and receive authorization to "solemnize," regardless of whether one is affiliated with a religious institution. It's a practice I approve of most heartily, a sign of the increasing irrelevance of ordination. To personalize the weddings and funerals I performed, I usually had to interview those involved so I could say appropriate things to and about them, and could avoid saying something wrong. Even so, I often felt awkward speaking so intimately about what was happening here: two people I barely knew were, through me, pledging a lifetime of love and sexual fidelity to each other. It just seems so much better to have a good friend (preferably one who knows both bride and groom as a couple) serve this function. These weddings were deeply personal events, much more than they ever could have been if some generic ordained official was in the central role.

Finally, there is one thing that made these weddings better for me than almost any I have ever attended: the presence at each one of my partner, my girlfriend, my "mountain wife." Attending a wedding alone is a miserable experience for a divorced person. Taking a date to a wedding is only marginally better. Having a life partner, whether or not the two of you are married, makes the event not just tolerable, but meaningful in a more direct way.

This does not mean that it makes one marriage-minded, any more than holding a baby makes one want to have a baby (though in other case, this blanket denial has to be qualified with a "Well, maybe a little..."). And it brings me to the final portion of this essay: the future of marriage, as seen through the window of these three weddings.

I saw the movie reference in the title  (Four (not three!) Weddings and a Funeral, 1994) while in the midst of my first divorce, and haven't seen it since; and yet I can remember so much about it. It's the story of a young British man who, while attending a wedding, meets an American woman with whom he becomes obsessed. They only see each other at weddings, it seems. There is a large ensemble cast, including a gay couple, and it is the death of one of the gay men that leads to the one funeral in the title. None of the weddings is between the principals, though two of the weddings have them as either bride or groom. In the end, they realize that all these weddings they have experienced--including their own (to different people)--has felt empty, while the happiest couple they knew was the ones who, at least in 1994, were not allowed to be married, the gay men. Following the disastrous final wedding, at which the young man jilts his fiancée at the altar, he asks the American woman, "Will you not marry me?" And that's where we leave them: happily unmarried, but living together as a couple, raising children together. The legality of marriage, it turns out, is irrelevant to their happiness together.

So despite the prevalence of weddings in this film, it's really about the end of marriage as an institution. It serves as a harbinger of the post-marital era. Just as people have been leaving institutional religion in droves (especially in the Pacific Northwest), couples increasingly are finding themselves skeptical of the advantage of becoming legally married. Yes, there are some benefits involving taxes, visitation rights at hospitals, estates, and child-rearing, but when it comes to the actual meaning of the institution, more and more are finding it irrelevant. Why get married, when so many couples find themselves unable to keep their vows, especially the "until death" clause? Why get married when, as so many couples are witnessing to, it's quite possible now to live together for decades as domestic partners, and in fact to enjoy many of the same benefits and protections as marriage, without entering into the binding contract that can be so painful to break should the relationship come to an end?

Why indeed? As misty-eyed as I got attending weddings with Amy, I'm still ambivalent about marriage. I like very much the idea of having people come together to witness a couple's commitment to each other; but does that have to happen on paper, too? One of the weddings we attended was a surprise: Rosina and Erik invited us to an "engagement party," then surprised everyone by taking their vows in front of a friend who'd been recruited to officiate. Did the signing of papers afterward make the event any more special? It's hard to say. The one thing I can say for certain about legal marriage is that it creates a huge disincentive to simply walk out when things get rough. After two divorces, I can honestly say there is nothing I have ever been through that compares in terms of heartbreak and stress.

It's become a truism among progressives that allowing same-gender unions does not endanger marriage nearly as much as celebrity quickie weddings--and even quicker divorces. As I said earlier, far too many of the weddings I performed were for couples who, in my opinion, barely knew each other. I can't say this about any of the weddings I attended this summer, particularly the last of the three. Alex and Megan have been together for eight years. That's a very long engagement, as long as my first marriage. For two people to know each other that well, and still want to be married, says a lot about their relationship.

As, increasingly, marriage becomes irrelevant to they way couples enjoy their lives together, I believe we will see the legal side of it wither away. At the same time, though, I feel hope for a different institution (though "institution" is probably the wrong word for it): that of couples who, through the evolving interdependence that comes from life together, choose to make commitments to each other that are for life, whether or not they must be acknowledged by the state.

I believe that this is where marriage is headed, what its future is here in the "None Zone," and perhaps, ultimately, throughout America. It seems unlikely to me that formalized marriage will vanish in the foreseeable future: Mormons, at least, will have a nearly impossible time extracting it from their theology. But it will shrink, perhaps eventually including only a minority of Americans. Europe may already be there.

If, in the process, the gala wedding--along with the industry that pushes it--may vanish. If it does, good riddance. Weddings should be about couples, not profit margins.

So more power to you, Megan, Alex, Rosina, Erik, Michael, and Melissa. May your unions be strong and long-lived, and may you grow from strength to strength in each other's company. And may your love for each other grow, evolve, and deepen as you grow old together. To the brides and grooms! Here here!

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