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Hollow Ceremonies Seem to Have the Rite-of-Way

April 01, 1993|JIM WASHBURN | Jim Washburn is a free-lance writer who regularly contributes to The Times Orange County Edition.

Are weddings and funerals generally a big drag or what? I've been to some awfully dull ones, and I don't think this impression is just sour grapes over never having had either event held in my honor.

These occasions began long ago as rituals, to mark and clarify the significance of two of the more profound passages in our lives. But in both cases, ritual seems to have lost its resonance, and the remaining ceremony has often become a hollow machinery, as if being dead or married wasn't trouble enough.

I've seen friends embark down the matrimonial path with the grandest of intentions, insisting that their wedding is going to be different. It will be intimate, full of personal meaning to them and their close friends, reflective of the joy and the unique quality they hope to find in their life together.

Then, as in some horrific model of life at its most grinding, they are worn down by tradition and the professional minions of the bliss business, until their wedding bed starts looking decidedly Procrustean.

In the end, they wind up in a big hall being babbled at for 50 minutes by some guy who doesn't know them from Jesus--and who certainly likes them less--while their best friends stand by on either side helpless to aid them. The couple sit through cliched words that mean nothing to them, music they don't like, clothes they feel awkward in, lost in a constricting rite that leaves them wanting to shout: "Look, everybody, it's only us! We love each other, OK?"

Funerals work out about the same, except at the end they throw dirt on you instead of rice. It's a shame, because if done right, these events should be so entertaining that you'd find yourself going to strangers' funerals and weddings just for the drama, humor and emotion that belongs in the ceremony, not to even mention the free food. Maybe critics could even review them.

I've been to a couple of affairs in my life where they've thrown convention out, to varying degrees of success.

Once a member of this wildly individualistic family I knew got married. The service in their home was presided over by a Unitarian minister, and as part of it we all took turns reading random word balloons out of Sgt. Fury comic books, with such endearments as "Eat lead, Kraut!" and "Oooof!!" One Unitarian at the service--in jest, I think--told me, "We're just atheists who don't want people to know it."

The weirdest time was when I played in the band for a fake wedding held by a couple of law students. They sent out invites and threw this huge bash that was structured like a wedding in reverse, starting with a dance party and finishing with the ceremony. Only a few of us were clued in that they wouldn't be going through with it, though it seemed curious that no one questioned our selection of downer wedding songs, which included "The Thrill Is Gone."

Finally the couple was standing before a faux priest and right before the "I do" part, a rented ambulance with its siren blaring pulled up in front of the building and two attendants rolled in a covered gurney, from which hopped two people in bunny suits yelling "April fools!" This made for an interesting study in what the psychologist Irving Goffman called "frame analysis." Several people evidently seemed willing to adjust their concept of reality to allow for ambulances and cavorting bunnies as part of the processional and were righteously honked-off when they finally caught on that it all was a hoax.

This past weekend I was a groomsman in a wedding that one easily might have expected to be a grand circus. The groom was Sam Lanni. As owner of Safari Sam's, the tiny nightclub closed by the City of Huntington Beach in 1986, he and partner Gil Fuhrer (who was best man at the wedding) had brought O.C. a sustained burst of avant-garde, from bands with such names as the Meat Puppets to locally penned opera to Beckett plays.

The wedding, though, was a model of decorum, not much different in form from the cliched monster outlined at the start of this column. But some little things made it work. For starters, the minister spoke like a human being instead of a figurehead and kept things on a spiritual plane instead of preaching hellfire to the captive audience.

Then best man Fuhrer--who on occasion has delivered his poetry in a ranting manner not unlike that of his mustached namesake--gave a really touching speech, accessible to even the most staid person in the hall, with images of Sam and his bride's dentures someday sharing the same cup.

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