You've secured the perfect venue, you've ordered an exquisite menu, you've set the guest list, the beautiful invitations have gone out, you've hired a DJ, the seating chart is taking shape and the rehearsal dinner space has been selected.
You have covered every detail except one: the actual wedding.
For many couples, that ritual of commitment when they publicly dedicate their lives to one another is beyond an afterthought: it is an annoyance. Some just chose to take care of the contract at the courthouse. But those planning on incorporating some ceremony into the events generally only have one thought: make it short.
This approach is a mistake.
The secret to a truly beautiful, fun and unforgettable wedding is to spend at least as much time planning the actual ceremony as you spend on every other detail.
All of us are invited to a lot of parties, even really fun ones. However, we almost never get to witness and participate in rituals that focus on the love, hope and commitment represented by a wedding. As a couple, you will never have another opportunity to show the love you have for one another to the people to whom you are closest and have assembled for your wedding.
The ceremony offers you the opportunity to really focus on your love and how you are going to express it to others. If you really take the time to reflect, create and perform a ritual that conveys your love for one another it will imbue the rest of the festivities will a power and joy that simply will not be there without it.
I have worked with many couples to create meaningful ceremonies. My experience has taught me there are five important decisions -- or "homework," as I call it -- that will result in a ceremony that will help make your wedding a beautiful and meaningful day for you and your loved ones.
Choosing Your Officiant
Choosing the person who will stand with you in front of your community, lead you in your vows and make the pronouncement that you are married will be the most important choice. For many, this will simply be the leader of whatever religious or spiritual tradition you come from. Performing weddings is part of what religious leaders are expected to do and they will work with you on the particular requirements of your tradition. While this can limit the improvisation of creating your own ceremony, it will lend a sense of tradition and connection with your parents and grandparents.
Weddings with two people of different traditions can present challenges if both parties feel strongly. Some religious leaders will not perform interfaith weddings, although it is often possible to include a religious leader from both traditions.
For those of you who are not affiliated with any particular tradition (and that is a growing number) there are plenty of religious, spiritual and secular individual freelancers who are available to officiate your wedding. The best place to start is to ask friends if they have seen anyone at a wedding who seemed a good fit. There are also listings of wedding officiants on the internet; and if you have a location and are working with a wedding coordinator you can ask who they might recommend.
Make sure you take time to interview them. Ask what kind of weddings they have done in the past and how open they are to working with you to create the ceremony that fits who you are. They should be flexible and as interested in you and your ideas as they are in telling you what they do. It makes a huge difference to have an officiant who "gets" you as individuals and as a couple.
Readings, Music, Reflections
If you are working with your religious leader, ask him or her which parts of the ceremony are required by your tradition and which parts you can make choices about. In most cases there is an opportunity to work with your clergy person to select your readings, prayers and music within the wider framework of the religious service.
Of course, there is even more freedom when you are working with a freelance officiant and constructing the ceremony yourselves from a blank slate.
When I am working with a couple I suggest they take some time to talk about what readings have really spoken to them as a couple. While there are books of wedding readings, it is even better to look in your own library and see what you find there. Or to ask your parents, grandparents and other loved ones what readings they used at their wedding.
Readings should not be long -- one or two paragraphs is a good length as people have a hard time tracking for much longer than that. One option is to invite a friend or loved one to do a reading of their choice. This requires a high threshold for surprise and can be awkward if the reading is off base. Asking someone to read a passage that means something to you as a couple is often honor enough.
Music is often played at the beginning during the procession and at the ending recessional. There are the old "here come the bride" standbys, but you can be creative. My sister-in-law surprised my brother by coming in to the ominous and hilarious sounds of 2001: A Space Odyssey.
If you don't have musicians, recorded music is fine for the procession and recession, however, during the ceremony playing recording music, no matter how great, is awkward and endless. You can almost always find a friend who can play the guitar or can sing and they will be delighted to participate. Otherwise, hire some professionals.
You may also wish for someone to do a reflection or prayer. Often a religious leader will deliver some wise words, hopefully specifically written for the couple instead of a generic homily given at every wedding they do. Likewise, only invite your freelance officiant to offer words if they have spent time getting to know you. However, sometimes it is really nice to honor a grandparent, a mentor, or a friend with the invitation to offer a blessing, meditation or prayer during your ceremony. Make sure you are specify the parameters of the invitation -- no 45-minute sermons unless that is what you really want. Also, it is important to make it clear that this is different than a toast or roast that can take place at the dinner. Rather, the speaker should offer words or a prayer that rise to the appropriate tone and gravity to be included within the ceremony.
As a couple, you should decide what kind of vows you want to exchange. Again, some may be prescribed within your religious or spiritual tradition. Make sure you are comfortable with the words you are saying before the ceremony. For instance, some vows ask for a woman to obey the man, but don't make similar reciprocal demands. Take a look at the vows and talk them over with your clergy person to make sure you really want to pledge them to one another.
On the other end of the spectrum are self-written vows. In this case, try to talk to your future partner about the length and tone of the vows. Decide whether you will say the same thing to one another and if you will you know what you are saying beforehand. I tend to encourage a combination of both traditional vows and some creative personal vows for the couples I work with. It is nice for the people assembled to hear some recognizable words such as "I do" and "I take you."
But that doesn't preclude original written vows. You can easily have both. The important thing is to have vows that you both believe in and feel comfortable stating publically. It is also nice for your family and friends to have a chance to chime in with a declaration that they will vow to help your marriage so you can feel their support. I often invite the assembled group to state their own pledge to support the couple with a resounding "We do."
Creating The Space
If you are not getting married in a house of worship, you have some flexibility in the kind of space you want to create with your wedding. While you can have the two blocks of chairs with the center aisle, you can also create a circle or a semi-circle. Also, do you want to create some kind of altar with flowers, or symbols of your love including mementos that mean something for you two.
Keep in mind that you will need a space for you two, the officiant and any others who you want to stand up there with you. Also, plot out the path by which you will all enter the space and leave. Even this can be done creatively. I worked with one couple who were dancers in a famous dance company in New York who really knew how to make an entrance.
Make sure the space is set up for your guests to hear. It is my experience that for any wedding over 50 people requires some kind of amplification and after the care you have taken with the readings, reflections, music and vows you want to be heard. Your DJ can often set you up with a mic and amplifier.
Creating a ceremony is not rocket science. You have to create the space, get into the space, offer some word, music, vows, and exchange rings and then leave the space. To help you envision the ceremony here is a very bare bones structure of a ceremony:
- Welcoming music
- Readings, music, blessings
- Possible homily by officiant
- Exchange of vows
- Exchange of rings
It will be up to you to give life to these bones and bring to the ceremony all the love you have in your heart for one another by creating a completely unique ceremony that reflects the love and commitment you two have for one another.
If you take the time and the right intention to do this, I promise you your guest will thank you for sharing your love for one another with them and your wedding will be unforgettable.