Formal Victorian etiquette has it that any mention of the deceased in connection with a wedding is out of the question. Weddings, the logic goes, are occasions of happiness and celebration, and any mention of sorrow is verboten.
Thankfully we don’t live in Victorian times and this impression is at odds with many couples’ feeling that without the bride’s father (or another close, dear relative who is no longer living) there is a gap in the celebration – a hole in the day that needs to be filled with remembrance.
Although I used to be of the former persuasion, believing that reference to the dead was morbid and had no place in a wedding, I’ve softened a bit in my ripe old age (28). I’ve realized that the ideal that the moratorium is based on – the wedding day as a festival of unspoiled happiness – is not the reality of most couples’ nuptials. At a wedding all emotions are close to the surface, both positive and negative (come on, all that crying at weddings can’t be solely because people are overwhelmed with joy). A bride’s thoughts will be with her family whether they are present or absent, whether such thoughts bring her pleasure or sorrow.
So rather than telling you “No, absolutely not!” (although I don’t think what you have in mind is a good idea; more on that below) I’m going to try to offer some guidelines on what, in my revised opinion, is an acceptable honorific at a wedding and what goes too far.
Embracing the context
The first thing one needs to take into account is how much time has elapsed since the loved one’s death. The longer It has been, the more direct your reference can be. If your father died fifteen years ago, everyone in attendance has had plenty of time to come to terms with his death, to work through all their stages of grief. Thinking of him is likely to arouse a certain wistfulness but not passionate lamentations.
However, if your father passed away unexpectedly six months ago, any mention of him could be upsetting to those who were close to him. In the case of a recent death, allusions should be as private as possible, invisible to the bulk of the guests. Examples might be leaving flowers on the grave after the ceremony, carrying something special in your bouquet (such as rosemary, which represents remembrance, or a white butterfly, the symbol of everlasting life) or reading a poem that was a favorite of his, without mentioning him by name. Anything more specific or prominent is potentially overdoing it, risking hysterics and altering the focus of the wedding.
If the death is far into the past, more is allowable: with your mother, you can light a candle to symbolize his presence at the ceremony and let it burn throughout. You may refer to or quote him in a toast at the reception or display your parents’ wedding photograph there.
During the ceremony, your officiant may dedicate a prayer to him or simply to “those who could not be present today.” A line about him in the program is also acceptable. (And although any one of these things is a lovely gesture, more than one is gloomy.)
What not to do…
There are certain things that are never appropriate, because they are simply too much, too depressing or simply too creepy. Most of them involve giving the dead voice, as if pretending that they are still alive. These include ideas such as yours, where your father is said be “giving you away,” although he is not really present. This inserts a ghost into the ceremony. You are referring not to his memory but to actions he is supposedly taking in the present It also leaves guests who had assumed he was among the living looking around for your apparently invisible escort.
Many brides want to put the deceased’s name on the wedding invitations, but this, too, is possibly weird: the dead can’t issue invitations or host parties.
It’s also come into vogue to leave the chair or pew where the deceased would have been seated empty, save for a single flower. As an acquaintance commenting on this practice said, “Gee, why don’t they just blow up photographs of the dead and put life-size cardboard cutouts in the congregation?”. Such gestures make it seem as if the bride is in denial that the deceased is not really there. Consider very carefully if this is the right approach, not just for you but everyone else attending the wedding. It is very unlikely to be so!
If there is any doubt in your mind as to whether a remembrance is in good taste, it’s best to do nothing. Although many resist this option because it seems disrespectful, those who were close to your father have not forgotten him and his absence will be felt and regretted. In addition, if the mention of him is still painful to you, be aware many guests who were hitherto ignorant of your bereavement will be asking you about him at the reception, since you will seem to have opened the floor for discussion: “How long ago did he die?”, Of what cause?”, “Were you two close?”. Whereas if he is missing and unmentioned, guests will rightly assume that some private tragedy has separated the two of you. Answering such well-meaning but thoughtlessly hurtful inquiries is most likely not how you want to spend your wedding day.
Balancing the memories with the joy
In summary, the memory of your father is, of course, paramount on your mind at a very emotional time. Balance that carefully with the joy and optimism of the wedding day, remembering to look forward as well as back. If unsure of how to remember those who have passed, fall on the side of subtle, quiet and peaceful respect so that the happiness of your special day can shine through, while accepting and marking the loss of someone close to you.