In December, our good friends Alexis and Kazibi were married at their home in Baltimore. They asked my husband to preside, and a quick payment to The Universal Life Church granted him both the legal backing and "clergy" parking permit he never knew he had always wanted.
Ordainship secured, Rob then realized he'd need, you know, something to say to the couple and their 75 assorted friends and family. And that is how I ended up writing a wedding ceremony.
I of course immediately asked Google what to do, and wasn't thrilled with the results. Most were full-on ceremonies -- either very religious or too stuffy to work with. Alexis and Kazibi wanted something short and meaningful to them, which meant I had to scrap pulling from a pre-existing script and actually do the work myself.
I started from the vows and worked my way out. I used the vows from our own wedding and incorporated edits from Alexis and Kazibi. Seeing what they wanted to promise each other helped inform the rest.
Structurally, my seven years of Catholic education came into play. By the time I graduated high school I could, in my angsty, late-adolescent sleep, write a paper of any length using the five-paragraph essay structure. I applied this model to the vows, and without inserting an obvious thesis, tried to answer the question "Why are we here?" It may seem like a sterile way to frame wedding vows, but I think it kept things organized and gave me a good rhythm to work with.
The hardest part of writing the ceremony was finding the right balance of humor and sentiment. I tend to err toward the former in my writing, and while I knew they wanted some light-heartedness, this was not the time to stretch my comedy muscle. Kazibi is South African and funny, so I wrote in jokes about his accent, reminded guests that as witnesses they could be subpoenaed by Immigration, and stated that any grievances during the "speak now or forever hold your peace" part must be submitted in English. Again, this only worked because the bride and groom have great senses of humor -- you might want to avoid insulting the groom if you're writing for a more serious couple.
Using repetition allowed me to marry (pun!) the humor and sentiment. I wrote four sentences that began, "Today, we..." and later, another few that listed our affirmations for the couple -- the various ways we as a congregation were saying "Yes" to them. I would never use repetition like that in a more formal, to-be-read-only piece of writing, but in a piece meant to be spoken, it works. It also allowed me to interweave the emotional parts with the lighter parts, which gave the audience a break. (There were a LOT of happy tears at this wedding.)
At the end, we borrowed once more from our own vows (which were written by a close friend who should just quit his job and write ceremonies for a living). He ended our ceremony by using a Gabriel García Márquez quote as advice to us. For Alexis and Kazibi, we used Kurt Vonnegut's "I urge you to please notice when you are happy, and exclaim or murmur or think at some point, 'If this isn't nice, I don't know what is.'" It was a sweet, simple sentiment that anchored the ceremony.
Brevity is important in ceremony summation, I think. I was in the midst of writing a long, emotional conclusion and at some point I looked up and deleted it. After it was all gone I said a silent goodbye to the full page of text I'd vanquished to the Word Doc ethers, and figured I had about five good lines to fit in after the vows. The conclusion comes right after the vows, and really, that's the part the people come to see. Anything after "I do" is white noise. As a writer, I have a hard time shutting up, but as a ceremony writer, I quickly learned my job was to print in large font for my bespeckled clergyman husband, and to keep the attention fully on the bride and groom.
If you've been asked to write or perform a wedding ceremony, find someone else you know who has written one too. Then buy them a drink and force them to tell you how they did it. Take good notes, make sure to breathe, and remember that you (probably) adore the couple who tasked you with this enormous responsibility. Your greatest tools in this are literacy and love -- so use them.
Below, photos of the couple on their Big Day.