For love is strong as death

I met Rachel (or Mrs Joan Hunter Dunn) for coffee one dark November night to discuss this post.  It was supposed to be a joint post, talking about why we chose the wedding readings we did, what they meant to us, and thinking about inventive readings for the whole breadth of our readership.  Readings that are as diverse as you are, that speak to different people at different times in their lives.  As no wedding is the same and no married couple is the same, readings should reflect that, we thought.  

I got there, and Rachel blew me away.  She had books, and print outs, and suggestions galore and who was I kidding?  She’s good at this.  Too good for the likes of me.  This is why Flowers and Stripes is such a perfect read; because Rachel lives, breathes and loves literature.

I give you Rachel:

How and why did we choose our readings? Firstly our wedding ceremony was in a Church of England church.
There was a lot of thought that went into our ceremony but perhaps it’s easiest to explain it by a list:
My faith is important.
For Simon it’s not, but he knew how important it was to me.
So it was always going to be a church ceremony.
We both have many friends who do not have a faith and we wanted them to be included fully in our service.
Part of my family are Jewish. We wanted them to feel fully included in our service.
I wanted the ceremony to be substantial. Three hymns and three readings. Two to be from the bible, one not.
Choosing the biblical readings was easy. Plus we had all the wonderful words in the hymns, prayers, address and anthem to choose from to continue to say what we wanted to say. We did, or rather I did, look at all the different translations to see which ones I liked best.
Song of Songs 2: 10-13; 8:6,7
My beloved speaks and says to me:
‘Arise, my love, my fair one,
and come away;
for now the winter is past,
the rain is over and gone.
The flowers appear on the earth;
the time of singing has come,
 the voice of the turtle dove is heard in our land.
The fig tree puts forth its figs,
the vines are in blossom;
 they give forth fragrance.
Arise, my love; my fair one,
 and come away.’
Set me as a seal upon your heart,
as a seal on your arm;
for love is strong as death,
passion fierce as the grave.
Its flashes are flashes of fire,
 a raging flame.
Many waters cannot quench love,
 neither can floods drown it.
If one offered for love
all the wealth of one’s house,
 it would be utterly scorned.
Philippians 4: 4-9
Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Have no anxiety, but in everything make your requests known to God in prayer and petition with thanksgiving. Then the peace of God which is beyond our utmost understanding, will keep guard over your hearts and your thoughts in Christ Jesus.
And now, my friends, all that is true, all that is noble, all that is just and pure, all that is lovable and gracious, whatever is excellent and admirable – fill all your thoughts with these things.
Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.
I have always liked this passage. Gentleness, true, noble, just, pure, lovable, gracious, excellent, admirable.. Don’t we all strive to try and live like this with our spouse, our family, our friends, strangers?
The non religious reading:
We both love reading. It was a great excuse to look through many books, buy new poetry anthologies.
We wanted a passage that wasn’t going to be difficult to read. Goodbye some favourite e.e.cummings poems – just where would you breathe?
We didn’t want it too short. Goodbye George Eliot – I read the whole of Adam Bede to check the passage I loved wasn’t about adultery.
On that note – we didn’t want the reading to be about an adulterous love. Goodbye all the best readable parts from Anna Karenina.
We both lived good full lives before meeting each other. Quite a few of our friends are single. We didn’t have a mad whirlwind romance. Goodbye all the poems and passages about now I’m fulfilled now we’re together, now the sun can shine.
Simon was very certain that he wanted the passage to be able to be read to each other so goodbye ‘To my dear and loving husband’.
We had a seven-month engagement we were running out of time. So what did we choose?
Reader, we had two readings from the Bible and saved all our favourite lines for the back of our menu cards.

Anna here…interjecting.  Rachel sent me this list of quotes that she  and Warmth put on the back of the menu cards, and asked me to pick and choose.  Er…I couldn’t.  So I didn’t.  Rachel’s explained why they chose these quotes, in the hopes that it might inspire you, our readers:

Jose Saramago is Warmth’s favourite author:
The man and woman over there…you can see that they like each other, that they’re fond of each other, that they love each other, you can see that they’re happy, look they just smiled.’ Jose Saramago Seeing

I love sleeping…:
‘At night they slept curled together like two cashews’ Anne Tyler Digging to America

We’d watched Life is Beautiful and both loved it. Warmth wrote this in my valentine’s card that year:
‘Last night, I dreamt about you all night’ Life is Beautiful
We both have strong childhood memories of “Old Possom’s Book of Practical Cats”, and it connects to our London life:
‘The cottagers of Rotherhithe knew something of his fame;
At Hammersmith and Putney people shuddered at his name.
They would fortify the hen-house, lock up the silly goose,
When the rumour ran along the shore:
GROWLTIGER’S ON THE LOOSE!’ T. S. Eliot, Growltiger’s Last Stand from Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats 

Charles Dickens is my favourite author:
‘A heart well worth winning, and well won. A heart that, once won, goes through fire and water for the winner, and never changes, and is never daunted.’ Charles Dickens Our Mutual Friend

Anna Karenina was Warmth’s Valentines day gift to me after we’d been dating a few weeks – I knew he liked me when I received this:
‘In their conversation everything had been said; it had been said that she loved him, and that she would tell her father and mother that he would come tomorrow morning.’

‘There were no other eyes like those in the world. There was only one creature in the world who would concentrate for him all the brightness and meaning of life. It was she.’

Leo Tolstoy Anna Karenina

Our first dance:
‘And when you smile the world is brighter
You touch my hand and I’m a king
Your kiss to me is worth a fortune
Your love for me is everything

Elvis Presley  - The Wonder of You

I read the whole of Adam Bede for this passage. It was nearly going to be in our service:
‘What greater thing is there for two human souls than to feel that they are joined together to strengthen each other in all sorrow, to share with each other in al gladness, to be one with each other in the silent unspoken memories.’ George Eliot Adam Bede

A favourite book for both of us, and a quote to acknowledge that it’s not always simple:
‘A realisation that the founding principle of exiatence is what we call love, which works itself out sometimes not clearly, not cleanly, not immediately, nonetheless ineluctably.’ Yann Martel The Life of Pi

There had to be Shakespeare. Warmth sent me this play as a ‘save the date’ for a date at The Globe:
‘You see me,… where I stand,
Such as I am. Though for myself alone
I would not be ambitious in my wish
To wish myself much better, yet for you
I would be trebled twenty times myself,
A thousand times more fair, ten thousand times
More rich, that only to stand in your account
I might in virtues, beauties, livings, friends,
Exceed account.’

Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice

We loved Rapture and Duffy had become Poet Laureate in 2009:
‘as I open the bedroom door. The curtains stir. There you are
on the bed, like a gift, like a touchable dream.’

Carol Ann Duffy - Rapture

Part of our Russian literature reading:
‘Countless as the sands of the sea are human passions.’ Nikolai Gogol


Readers, what did you have as your ceremony readings, or throughout the day, and what did they say about you?  I had Captain Corelli’s Mandolin because it broke my heart, and The Invitation (abridged,chopping out the last two stanzas to end on something uplifting) because it gave me fire.  I am not sure I’d choose the same again.  You?   

Categories: Books, Wedding Planning
15 interesting thoughts on this


  1. Posted January 4, 2012 at 7:41 am | Permalink

    We had Song of Solomon and the excerpt from Captain Corelli as well.

    We had a Church Of Scotland ceremony, so were bound by what was appropriate, although we loved both our readings.

    That said, if I could have slipped The Velveteen Rabbit 'What is Real' passage in, I would.


  2. amy f
    Posted January 4, 2012 at 8:12 am | Permalink

    Oooh, I've been thinking about this. It's so hard! I like aristophanes on love from symposium but as a classicist there's a niggle that I'd be recontextualising it. And captain corelli is a lovely quote but I don't like the book. I think we will probably find what we want (honest, fitting but light and sweet) from childrens books to be honest.

  3. Posted January 4, 2012 at 8:59 am | Permalink

    I really thought that, as book lovers, we'd find it really easy to choose our readings but it was surprisingly hard. We wanted to have things that meant something to us, and which reflected the two of us, but which were also appropriate to the two people we'd asked to read for us.
    For M's dad, we presented him with a small selection of readings we loved and asked him to choose the one he liked the most. In the end, he did two – e.e.cummings' i carry your heart with me, and Spike Milligan's If I could Write Words.

    M is an actor/comedian so it wouldn't have felt right to not have some humour in our readings (especially as we ended up laughing our way through the ceremony), so we asked a good friend of ours to read this excerpt from one of my favourite books, Everything is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer. It does demand a certain kind of reader, I think, so was well suited for an actor to read, and it was great watching our guests go from expressions of "this is about a marriage not working!" and "there's death in this!" to "ah ha, this is really funny!" and "actually, this is about making marriage work".

    (We did have to take out the "Shalom" and the "Amen" from the original passage in order to fit the requirements of the Civil Ceremony.)


  4. Emily
    Posted January 4, 2012 at 9:38 am | Permalink

    We are only having the authorised readings for the day from the Church of England service because K feels strongly about this. But one of them is love as strong as death, which I am taking as a good sign! We've decided to put a poem or extract along similar lines to the ones above on the back of the order of service; I thought I'd found one but reading these I'm vacillating!

    I love Flowers and Stripes and it has completely reinvigorated my reading, so thank you Rachel! I've just discovered DE Stevenson and FM Mayor, lovely books.

  5. Posted January 4, 2012 at 10:20 am | Permalink

    Oh, thank you for this post. I long to be well read and articulate, able to quote Shakespeare, and include long words in every day conversation. But I fail at this, and so rather than reading great tracts of literature, I used Rachel's wonderful blog, for my non bible reading.

    We had Corinthians:

    Love is patient, love is kind.
    It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud.
    It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs.
    Love does not delight in evil, but rejoices with the truth.
    It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.
    Love never fails.

    This is my favourite bible reading. It perfectly sums up how I want our love for each other, to be.

    For our non bible reading we had A House of Stone by Carmen Bugan, which I took from Flowers and Stripes. Rachel, thank you for this. It's my favourite poem. I loved the line "Obstinate, strong love, unyielding and unending". We are both rather stubborn, and I thought the words perfectly describe us!

    On the back of our menu, we had this poem The Word by Tony Hoagland The poem incudes the line "pleasure is a thing", which is what our wedding was to be. Sitting with friends and family, enjoying a delicious meal, was the pleasure or sunlight, referred to in the poem.


  6. Posted January 4, 2012 at 11:21 am | Permalink

    We had Captain Corelli's too. I don't know that I would necessarily choose it again, even though it is lovely and captures the essence of what love is about for us – I just think we could have thought a bit more carefully and found something more meaningful to us (Fin has never read the book and I read it ages ago and forgot it immediately).

    For our bible readings we had Colossians 3: 12-17, and then Fin's dad (our minister) read John 2:1-11, where Jesus turns water into wine at a wedding, as part of the address to illustrate why the church values marriage so highly.

    But my favourite words weren't actually the readings. While we signed the register, my super-talented friend sang Hyme à l'Amour, a beautiful Edith Piaf song that she wrote for the love of her life shortly before he was killed in a plane crash (I love a tragic love story, I do). My friend sang it in the original French but I wrote out the translation in our Order of Service along with a little paragraph explaining the background to the song, so people would understand. Then finally, like Rachel, there were a couple of quotations we really loved that didn't work as a reading, so we put them on our Order of Service. At the beginning we had "God is love, and whoever abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him", which we both loved and thought set the tone for the ceremony perfectly. Then at the back, to set the tone for the par-tay which was about to follow, we had a quote from Fin's favourite "poet", the legend that is Morrissey:

    "If a double-decker bus crashes into us, to die by your side is such a heavenly way to die."

    I worried at first that it might be a bit morbid, but then I thought, we were talking about "til death do us part", and if you can't face up to that reality then you have no business getting married. In my humble opinion.

    Whoa, that turned into a bit of a mammoth comment! Sorree! Great post, as always.

  7. Posted January 4, 2012 at 11:27 am | Permalink

    don't have enough time to comment properly, but Rachel that George Eliot quote was on the front of our order of service. To me, that's what it's all about xx

  8. Posted January 4, 2012 at 11:43 am | Permalink

    Kirsty I feel similarly to you about not having searched hard enough for our readings. It was always going to be Captain Corelli because I adore the book (even though the petty part of me was whispering in my ear "but EVERYONE has it" – as if that's the point!) but The Invitation? At the time I adored the words and the sentiment and my friend Rachel read it for us beautifully but I wish I'd had something else. I just thought "passionate" tick, "powerful" tick, that'll do. But it's only a teensy regret.

  9. Posted January 4, 2012 at 12:04 pm | Permalink

    What a wonderful post. It's made me smile from ear to ear :-)

    We are really struggling to decide on our readings. Like Rachel, I want both religious and non-religious readings. We're getting married in church, for me, so I want a reading that is non-religious so that the ceremony reflects us both (G being entirely atheist). For the religious, I'm torn between Corinthians, and the Song of Songs. I think part of my reluctance to choose Corinthians is that EVERYONE has it, but then, that's probably because it is a wonderful passage, and sums up love so ruddy beautifully. You can't really argue with that.

    It's the non-religious reading where we are really stuck. G is not poetic, and we don't tend to be expressive in words but in actions, so it's proving challenging to find something that isn't too poetic or romantic for us. So far, our forerunner is AA Milne, Us Two. Because AA Milne is all kinds of awesome, and because the line "I wasn't afraid," said Pooh, said he, "I'm never afraid with you." is perfect, I think.

    Of course we could go with my bridesmaids suggestion that if actions speak louder than words we express ourselves through interpretive dance at the ceremony.

    K x

  10. Posted January 4, 2012 at 12:07 pm | Permalink

    Katielase – YES. Interpretive dance, with percussion instruments that the bridesmaids are cleverly concealing behind their bouquets!

  11. Posted January 4, 2012 at 12:20 pm | Permalink

    Thank you Anna for asking me to join you in this post. I so enjoyed writing it and remembering our service.
    Thebabywife, Amy, Emma, Katie & Katielease – I shall enjoy looking and all reading your passages, plus finding new words is always exciting.
    Emily & Katie – such kind words thank you.
    Kirsty – I think Colossians was on our short list. We had a line from a favourite psalm on our front cover of the order of service.
    Prettiest Hobo – isn't it a lovely passage.

    ps Sorry for the lack of an apostrophe and a mispelling in the post.

  12. Liana
    Posted January 4, 2012 at 12:44 pm | Permalink

    We had a civil ceremony. I think my favourite reading was a poem by Vernon Scannel (If you don't know him he writes some beautiful poems about love). The one we chose was 'The Power of Love'
    It can alter things:
    The stormy scowl can become
    Suddenly a smile.

    The knuckly bunched fist
    May open like a flower,
    Tender a caress.

    Beneath its bright warmth
    Black ice of suspicion melts;
    Danger is dazzled.

    A plain and dull face
    Astounds with its radiance
    And sudden beauty.

    Ordinary things -
    Teacups, spoons and sugar-lumps -
    Become magical.

    The locked door opens;
    Inside are leaves and moonlight;
    You are welcomed in.

    Its delicate strength
    Can lift the heaviest heart
    And snap hostile steel.

    It gives eloquence
    To the dumb tongue, makes plain speech
    Blaze like poetry.

    I chose a friend of mine who is in her sixties to read it. She is very wise and I often go to her for advice. I think when you're choosing readings you also have to think about who is reading them. To speak about the nature of love you need somebody with life experience.

    For my friend, who wanted to do a reading we chose 'Maybe' as it's mood is uncertain but hopeful. She's a single girl and we'd spent lots of years going out together searching for the 'perfect man'. The reading seemed to suit her perfectly.
    Maybe we are supposed to meet the wrong people before we meet the right one, so when they finally arrive we are truly grateful for the gift we have been given.
    Maybe it's true that we don't know what we have lost until we lose it, but it is also true that we don't know what we're missing until it arrives.
    Maybe the happiest of people don't have the best of everything, but make the best of everything that comes their way.
    Maybe the best kind of love is the kind where you sit on the couch together, not saying a word, and walk away feeling like it was the best conversation you ever had.
    Maybe once in a lifetime you find someone who touches your heart, someone who loves you for who you are and not what you could be.
    Maybe the art of true love is not about finding the perfect person, but about seeing an imperfect person perfectly.

  13. amy f
    Posted January 4, 2012 at 1:04 pm | Permalink

    Does anyone else always have to say 'good point' at the clanging cymbals bit of Corinthians, a la Simon Callow in Four Weddings? No? Just me then.

  14. Anonymous
    Posted February 5, 2012 at 9:45 am | Permalink

    These postings have really warmed my heart! Haven't got time to post all my thoughts but I just wanted to say thankyou for some inspiring readings, and for giving me a kick up the backside to get this done…..and to get it right x

  15. Emma
    Posted March 11, 2012 at 1:48 am | Permalink

    I am currently writing all 75 Orders of Service by hand, which tempts me to have very itsy-bitsy readings, but the Literature major in me has compiled a short list that is NOT true to its name…it is about 4 pages long! The only definite choices are The Song of Solomon (which I see is popular) and Pablo Neruda’s Sonnet XVII, since he is my favorite poet. I also need to find something that is both religious and Irish, since Fiance is both. I might leave off the Sonnet and incorporate that somewhere at the reception. Not sure yet!

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Hello! We're Clare, Aisling and Anna and welcome to a corner of the world where smart, flawed, real women talk about the bigger picture; about their experiences, stories and opinions on all aspects of being a woman today, from marriage to feminism to pretty, too.

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