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I'm A Minister Who'd Rather Officiate Funerals Than Weddings. Until This Year

(Karim Manjra/Unsplash)
(Karim Manjra/Unsplash)

It’s the end of September and I have yet to attend a wedding. Which is unusual given that I make a living marrying people — other people that is.

By this time last year, I performed four weddings, on four consecutive weekends, in three different states. I have certainly had a front-row seat to more than my fair share of wedded bliss, all thanks to my starched white clergy collar.

The first time I presided at a wedding it was of the traditional church variety. Pews, hymns, candles. It was all very predictable. But I have also officiated at a swanky hotel ballroom wedding, surroundings that prompted me to discreetly offer my hand palm up to a gum-chewing groom while all eyes were still focused on his approaching bride. I have performed countless backyard and beachside weddings, slathered in a coat of sunscreen and bug spray. I have braved a boat cruise wedding, hoping against hope I would finish the ceremony before my Dramamine wore off. I have even officiated at a wedding in the Museum of Science’s Theater of Electricity, including a finale where the couple stood in a metal birdcage high above those gathered as bolts of simulated lightning crackled all around them.

When it comes to weddings, I’ve seen just about everything.

But here’s a little secret I uncovered in the hallowed halls of my seminary, straight from the mouth of my bespectacled and beloved faculty advisor, “Oh Anne, I’d rather do a hundred funerals than one wedding!” What? She couldn’t be serious. Who would forfeit the excitement, the expectation, the joy of blessing a marriage for the tears and anguish of a burial?

As it turns out … me.

With more than 200,000 dead ... it’s hard, even for ministers, not to become numb to the staggering amount of loss that surrounds us.

Since being ordained, I have discovered both the duty and dividend that come with being a minister. On the one hand, there is no greater gift to someone in my profession than the immediacy with which people offer you their trust. Like Superman’s phone booth, my collar magically transforms me into someone worthy of entry into the most vulnerable and heart-wrenching moments life dishes out. But with that trust comes responsibility. In those tender and unsteady times, those under your care need you to be steadfast, compassionate, and most importantly, above reproach.

Which is precisely why funerals pull so much harder at my heartstrings. For all their picture-perfect moments, weddings still symbolize a gateway to the future. By the time the big day arrives, the role of the officiant is largely ceremonial. But funerals mark a final goodbye, a transition rife with complexity and sorrow. People need a minister when poised at this kind of emotional precipice. You cease to be window dressing when you preside at a funeral. Everyone is counting on you to do the heavy lifting. And rightly so.

But COVID’s relentless drumbeat of death has produced a tidal wave of grief. With more than 200,000 dead and no end in sight, it’s hard, even for ministers, not to become numb to the staggering amount of loss that surrounds us. From behind my mask, I watch helplessly. Social distancing has become my kryptonite. And yet the drumbeat goes on.

I miss the colorful bouquets. I miss the teary-eyed fathers. I miss seeing hands tremble as rings slip awkwardly into place.

Over the years, I have made peace with my preference to stand beside widows over brides; my desire to soothe rather than celebrate. But something happened when the calendar turned to autumn this year. Long the most popular month for weddings here in New England, this September has made me long for weddings. COVID has reminded me how much I miss joy.

I miss the colorful bouquets. I miss the teary-eyed fathers. I miss seeing hands tremble as rings slip awkwardly into place. After months of blessing and praying from afar, I miss being in the thick of things.

Ministry is, at its core, a vocation of presence. Baptizing, consecrating and burying are rituals specifically designed to be embodied. And although I have remained connected to my congregation by technology, I feel as if I’m the bridesmaid and never the bride in this equation, orbiting the flurry of action but never quite close enough.

The numbers of weddings have been on the decline for some time now, and yet just over 2 million people here in the U.S. still tie the knot every year. Which makes me wonder:  Anyone need a minister?

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Anne Gardner Twitter Cognoscenti contributor
Anne Gardner is an Episcopal minister and currently leads the chaplaincy program at Harvard-Westlake, a private high school in Los Angeles.

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