Whether your dream wedding is a simple ceremony in a serene setting or a dramatic destination for a few hundred of your closest friends, making the day meaningful will be as important as making it memorable. One of the most poignant challenges is keeping the day celebratory while honoring the memory of important people who cannot be present.
The answer is ritual: taking time to pause, name, remember and recognize and often with a symbol.
The Rev. John Hamilton served United Methodist churches throughout Illinois for 41 years and guided many couples through rituals of remembrance on their wedding day. "For some families, this is a very stressful and joyful moment," says Hamilton. "Emotions are already very strong. Remembering may serve the couple, the parents, other relatives or friends. There is a desire to include everyone, to please everyone.
"It is important to acknowledge the grief everyone experiences even in celebrations," Hamilton continues. "To have a moment or action of remembrance draws those persons absent into the present and into the celebration.
"This may also be a 'moving on' point for the couple, parents or others. It can mark a new beginning, a new reality, a new hope. Placement of the act in the ceremony is important. A wedding ceremony is about the love of the couple, the beginning of a marriage and the future. Placing (the time of remembrance) early in the ceremony makes it a transitional metaphor for the future. It is important to shape the ceremony so it looks forward rather than backward. 'We remember and we look forward to the future' is the idea."
Kreston Lipscomb has served as a pastor for the Church of the Brethren for 35 years. "Weddings are a setting where people who are important to a couple are often honored by inclusion in the event. Friends and family members are often chosen to participate by standing with a couple. Parents, grandparents and relatives are given seats of honor and often acknowledged in the service itself. But what if someone is absent? Well, there often is someone absent.
"I do recommend that people, in their wedding planning, share about the person who will be absent. The more people are involved in preparing the wedding the more creative they can become.
"I have come to value the narrative that is our life. An important piece of that narrative is the people, the relationships which have nurtured, guided and gifted us. A wedding can be a place where that 'missing' person and his or her role in our lives can be marked.
"My experience suggests to me that a couple can find ways of honoring or acknowledging missing ones if the invitation is extended by the pastor or one officiating the service. People value the opportunities to connect the dots of their life experiences with those who played key roles in the experiences. For example, I often ask a couple to name those persons whose lives modeled the kind of love and devotion they hope to have in their married lives."
There are many ways to do this. "Words spoken, readings, moments of silence, printed words, candles lighted by parents, the couple, others; additional flowers or other symbols placed at the center of the space, objects held or carried by the couple or individuals," Hamilton begins. Recently, at his daughter's wedding, Hamilton continues, "The remembrance was a moment of silence at the beginning of the service after the bride arrived at the front of the sanctuary. After the introductory part of the ceremony, my brother, the officiant, invited the congregation to remember those who were not present at the ceremony. It was an open invitation and allowed each person to 'fill in' the way he or she wanted."
This was arranged during the wedding planning, as Hamilton counsels all couples. "First, have a conversation with the clergy person or officiant about who the couple wishes to remember and why. Then discuss a simple, brief way to do that, and put the time of honoring in the service and program so the remembrance doesn't interrupt or distract from the main purpose of the ceremony: the couple and the vows," Hamilton explains.
"I do believe naming is important," says Lipscomb. "A few years ago, I officiated a wedding of a couple who had both had a young child die some years earlier. The couple needed to name their children and to find some way to include them in the service. I advised them to write something (a paragraph or two) about their children. I then read their 'stories' as a way of honoring the ones loved and passed while preparing to live and love in this future relationship as spouses.
"They both placed small items of remembrance on the altar. One was a daughter's favorite doll and the other a son's teddy bear. That moment in the service was delightfully celebrative, made so by the tone the couple set in the paragraphs about their child. It was helped as well by the vast majority of those attending knowing that part of the couple's individual narratives.
"Less dramatic examples exist in the small ways loved ones and mentors have been remembered," Lipscomb continues. "One couple chose to have their college professor's picture placed on a table at their reception. The professor was unable to attend, but it was the professor who introduced the couple to one another. It was a way of thanking the missed one."
Several websites discuss the reality of wedding and reception planning when a significant loved one will be absent. A Google search of "ways to honor a missing loved one at a wedding" leads to several sites that offer lists of ideas for various circumstances and settings. An article by Andrew Blackburn at http://www.hallmark.com talks about the use of flowers, candles, dancing, music, donations of money and personal mementos placed on a piano. "It's OK to keep it simple," the article sidebar encourages.
At http://www.dweddings.com, Ryan Conner's "Nine Ways to Honor Loves Ones at Your Wedding" talks about hitting the balance of remembering without making your joyous day melancholy. He suggests a photo table, wearing a special accessory or piece of jewelry, dedicating a part of the ceremony with a favorite song, poem or other verse, a moment of silence, and more.
Not for show, not out of obligation and without attempting to include every single person who won't be at the ceremony, finding meaningful ways to build a simple remembrance ritual into a wedding day can join hearts and generations in love for a lifetime.