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The wedding-industrial complex

Weddings are more expensive and extravagant. Let's not forget about their meaning.

June 8, 2007



It's June. That means somewhere in America, a bride is having her teeth whitened to look her best, or is riding in a real Cinderella coach. A wedding planner is making sure the marbled portable restroom (attendant included) is in place for an outdoor wedding. Then the bills will arrive: about $28,000 worth.

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That's the average cost of a wedding and reception in the United States these days – almost twice the cost since 1990. Looked at another way, that's more than seven months' earnings for the median household income.

Weddings are very personal affairs. Who's to say that a bride shouldn't have her Cinderella experience (possible at Disney World), if that's her idea of happiness? Or who's to judge whether a couple that goes to the trouble and expense to be taught a Michael Jackson routine isn't simply expressing a lot of joy and fun when they strut before guests in their first dance?

But taken as a whole, one has to wonder what the trend toward ever more extravagant and costly weddings says about American values – and the $161 billion wedding business. Supersizing Americans have graduated to McMansions and widescreen TVs, but a wedding should be different. A ceremony that calls for a lifelong commitment, which many consider a holy event, and whose successful outcome underpins civilization itself, seems to be losing its meaning beneath yards of personalized aisle runners.

Rebecca Mead takes up this subject in a just-published book, "One Perfect Day: The Selling of the American Wedding." The work is being compared to Jessica Mitford's 1960 exposé of funeral industry tactics.

Couples should heed Ms. Mead's warning that the wedding industry (which grew by $40 billion in the three years she worked on her book) well understands that nuptials, births, and funerals are the three events for which consumers will pay top dollar. And they should be savvy to the oft-repeated sales pitch to a bride and groom: This is your day; you want it to be perfect.

That message can reflect a subtle appeal to vanity (facials are a must). It can raise a certain fear (if a videographer doesn't record every moment from engagement on, you'll forget it all). Or suggest limitation (what, there's only one perfect day in life?).

Couples buy into the wedding extravaganza as a substitute for the lost meaning of the ceremony itself, Mead found. For many couples, especially those living together, there's little difference between the days before and after the big day. Many weddings seem to be more about the bride and groom making a personal statement than making one before God.

But there is still deep meaning in making a lifelong, mutual promise of love and support, as anyone who has uttered or witnessed a heartfelt exchange of vows recognizes.

One such exchange comes to mind. The bride went through a long list of all the things she might make if life handed them lemons: lemonade, lemon meringue pie, lemon mousse, lemon dill sauce. Then the groom took her hand, looked into her eyes, and said simply, "I promise to be good to you."

There wasn't a dry eye in the house. And it really couldn't have mattered whether that "house" was an expensive resort on a paradise island or a simple altar.

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