Zen and the Art of Weddings

All the careful planning that goes into one big day – from choosing the best location, the tastiest food, the perfect clothing, beautiful flowers, the right music – the list goes on and on. How do you keep your cool? How do you stay calm? Where can you find your zen?

The word zen actually refers to a sect or school of Buddhism, and its history and meaning is quite complicated. But when used in pop culture we generally mean a state of mind that is at peace, with a focus on the unity of mind and body.  Zen involves dropping illusions and seeing things without distortion created by your own thoughts.  Meditation might be involved, but now always.

Zen is a good state to aspire to when all the wedding stress kicks in and you just can’t stop thinking about all those details, You may want to develop your own personal ‘mantra’, which is a phrase you can say over and over to yourself, like a prayer of sorts, that helps one focus. Wedding planning isn’t going anywhere, so when you can’t stop the wheels from spinning, you know its time to take a break and find your zen.

Relaxing outdoors.

Remember what is meaningful: your marriage. Planning a wedding is planning for one day of your life, but you are really planning for a lifetime together. So why not sit down and imagine that future? Of course you’ve talked about it all before, but what better time than before the nuptials? Instead of talking about cake, talk about your lives. Write letters to each other to save for the future. Get out some family photo albums and review them together. Gather up some family history and ask about your parents or grandparents about their weddings.

Take some time together.

One obvious piece of pop culture advice also holds true: Don’t sweat the small stuff. Be the gracious person you aspire to be. You’ve chosen your vendors, now let them do their thing. If they’re good, you don’t need to micro-managed.

Try some exercise or do something outdoors the morning of your wedding. Take a walk. Look at the sky. Take some deep breaths. Get a massage. You get the idea. Eat breakfast. Don’t drink alcohol until the reception, and even then, do so in moderation.

Being nervous and being stressed are two different things. It’s normal to be nervous, and when you feel those nerves remind yourself that you are feeling excited because it is important, and that’s a good thing.

Get centered.

If you feel like having a good cry, that’s ok too.  And lean on your loved ones because a wedding is indeed a huge milestone in life and a time when we need our closest family and friends. And a wedding is something we are never truly prepared for. After all, it is a unique and very special day. So remember, there’s nothing wrong with you, this is just one of those moments in life. It will all be over before you know it, so try to enjoy it and be ‘in’ the moment. Find your ‘mantra’ and, you know, the zen of the wedding.


Thank you Lisa Rhinehart  for your gorgeous photos!

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The Walk Down the Aisle

It is traditional for a bride to walk down the aisle to meet her groom, most often escorted by her father. When a young woman is leaving her parents home to begin a new life, as was common in the past, that makes complete sense. While this is often no longer the case, many women still chose to walk with their dad for sentimental reasons. And that’s fine. In fact, it’s downright beautiful. And many are choosing to walk with both parents or just their mother. Circumstances vary widely and appropriate adjustments should always be welcome. But there are actually even more choices than you might imagine.

A father escorting his daughter is always beautiful (photo: Garth Woods)

For some couples, especially if they have had a long and challenging road to find love and happiness, there are ways to express that journey, in words and in actions. One way is in the processional itself. When you think about it, the entrance offers the perfect symbolism.

I recently officiated a wedding where the couple used that opportunity in a creative way. Let me explain. As the ceremony began the couple entered from the sides and stood at the front, they then separated, walked around the outside of their guests’ chairs and joined again and walked together down the center aisle. I had some nice words to accompany that, of course! It was a clear visualization of their journey, and an interesting way to begin their ceremony. It was really great!

This is interesting!

Another option is to have a parent or parents accompany the bride or groom half way down the aisle. The other partner then comes forward (perhaps even with their parent or parents). They all meet in the middle with hugs all around and then the couple joins hands and walks to the front, while the parents follow and take their seats. Also pretty cool!

The processional choreography can be as diverse as you are. We often don’t take advantage of this opportunity – perhaps because most couples have never heard about or seen anything other that the standard entrance.

How about no center aisle at all? For smaller weddings that works beautifully, especially in keep all the guests cozy and together.

No aisle at all for a small wedding. Photo by Garth Woods

Another interesting idea is to have the seating set up in a spiral so that when the couple enters, they pass each and every guest on the way to the alter. Clearly this is not for everyone. It is not even for most. But for some it may be perfect.

The Rascal Flatts song “Bless the Broken Road” expresses it beautifully when they sing:


Every long lost dream led me to where you are

Others who broke my heart they were like Northern stars

Pointing me on my way into your loving arms

This much I know is true

That God blessed the broken road

That led me straight to you.


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Summer Lessons Learned

As fall is settling in, it’s a good time to reflect back on this past summer’s weddings and see what can be learned from some of my various experiences.

If you are planning a wedding for next summer, you may be picturing a gorgeous sunny day.  And there was plenty of that. But you are probably not thinking about perspiring or squinting through your ceremony while your guests drip like melted icing.

As it often does, once again it comes down the weather. I officiated more than a few ceremonies in the hot, hot sun this year. Several gorgeous area high-end venues have ceremony sites without shade. While this continues to amaze me, there are actions you can take to deal with it.

Shade on a sunny day.

If you are planning an outdoor wedding for summer remember to have something that can offer shade and respite. Some good options to deal with a sundrenched site are as follows…

Umbrellas and parasols – buy them, have them! They are well worth the money!

Market umbrellas on stands – ask if your venue can provide this or collaborate with you to make it happen.

Schedule the time correctly. Check sunrise/sunset times for your date and plan accordingly.

The right orientation of chairs and set-up of the ceremony space. Think out of the box. I recall having the sun shining directly into the faces of all the guests and thinking, gee, if they had simply turned the entire wedding slightly to the side, this would not have happened. Don’t be afraid to ask your venue to move chairs from their typical positions. They work for you; you can have it set up however you want.

Fans – either the kind you hold in your hand and wave at yourself, or actual electric fans that can blow create a breeze for you and your guests.

Bugs – while I don’t condone killing bugs, they have a place in the ecosystem, and I don’t support using pesticides, you can put out citronella candles and torches and there are lots of natural bug repellants to be found. The fans help with that as well.

Set up under a tree - it really helps!

Let the men know its perfectly acceptable to remove jackets for the ceremony – ushers can tell them, a DJ, a wedding coordinator, or even your officiant, in an informal way, before the ceremony begins.

With a little forethought you can enjoy a hot day in the sun without discomfort and have the summer wedding of your dreams.


Thank you Lisa Rhinehart  for your gorgeous photos!

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How to Elope

Last week I wrote about the many reasons couples may choose to elope. Elopement is no longer a secret or undesirable choice. In fact, there are many good reasons to get married without guests. So, if you’ve decided to elope, how exactly do you accomplish this?

Eloping at Harmony Gardens (photo: Garth Woods)

First and foremost: where ever you are going, find out the marriage license requirements. Remember in the U.S. it is each state that control marriage, so you need a license issued by the state in which the wedding is taking place. You don’t have to be a resident of that state, simply obtain the license there. This is even more important for same-sex couples, as only 19 states currently have marriage equality (and we do in PA).

These details are important, for example, here in Pennsylvania there is a three-day waiting period from the time the license is issued, until it can be used. This can be waived by petitioning the court, usually done for cases of military deployment. So before taking another step, learn what you need legally. Then, gather all your legal documents together before going there.

Many resorts specialize in this and can be very helpful, as well as a few good on-line sites for elopement, especially ‘wheretoelope.com.

Obviously you need someone to officiate your marriage. I perform elopements very often at my garden wedding site, or other locations, and I’m glad to help in any way. It can be a little daunting finding the right location for the ceremony and an officiant who will go there, but it can be done! There are the on-line resources, of course, and also most courts have a list of local officiants they can give you.

If you’re thinking you would just like to go somewhere beautiful, like a park, or by a river or waterfall, think it through. What will you do if it rains? If you are staying at a hotel, ask if you can use some space there. Will your officiant be put off by rain? I’ve officiated under an umbrella and in the snow, and I have a rain back-up plan at my place.

What’s your style? I have had elopements with brides in gorgeous wedding gowns. There is no reason why you can’t have the dress. In fact, you can have it all – the gown, the flowers, the rings, the romance and the ‘I do’s’ – just without the guests! Some couples think that elopement is the most romantic way to tie-the-knot. Imagine the couples massages, the honeymoon suite, all the extras you can splurge on, since you’re not paying for a big wedding.

A romantic moment at Harmony Gardens. (photo: Garth Woods)

On the other hand, with an elopement, anything goes – so anything from jeans to dress clothing is fine. You can forgo a lot: the fancy clothes, flowers, favors, invitations, the list goes on and on, but one thing you should consider having is a professional photographer. You may want to show your loved ones and future generations a photo of your wedding day! What a story you have created, but sure to have the photographic evidence to back it up.

Are you doing this in secret, or simply doing a ‘get away’ and getting married? If you are keeping the big news from family and friends, let them afterwards as soon as possible.  Call those closest to you. This is not a piece of news for email or text. Then, if you wish, plan a party, or send an announcement out – use those great photos!

Remember, just because you are eloping, doesn’t mean it’s not important. Be prepared to answers lots of questions and maybe even a few accusations after the fact. But if avoiding the drama, planning and expense of a big wedding is your goal, then go ahead and take the leap of faith that is marriage with the leap of elopement.


Thank you Garth Woods for the beautiful photos.

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A great way to announce your elopement! photo by me.

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Thinking of Eloping? Read this….

In the past eloping was defined as running away to get married, especially without parental consent. But in today’s world it can mean something very different. There are two parts to taking a closer look at elopement: One is the ‘why,’ and the second is ‘the how.’

There are indeed many reasons to elope. Today I’m writing about those reasons, and next week I’ll talk about how to accomplish it.

Eloping can be very romantic.

Eloping does imply secrecy, but there are times when a couple simply wants to get married without guests or fanfare. They may not be keeping it a secret. Good news for couples living here or coming to Pennsylvania: there are no witnesses required for your marriage license, and that makes it all the easier.

Some of the most common reasons couples chose to elope include the following:

Expediency. You need to get married quickly, for reasons such as military deployment or other practical issues, like heath insurance.

Avoiding family conflict is a big one! We all understand that family can be complicated, sometimes just too complicated, and eloping is a great way to simply avoid it. Which is directly connected to the next reason….

Stress! Planning a wedding can be a lot of work. Some couples may have neither the time nor inclination to do it. I have had more than one couple call off their formal wedding and ask to be married quietly in my garden. They simply couldn’t take one more minute of family drama! (and of course I complied.)

Just the two of them!

Finances! You might prefer to spend the money on something else, like a down payment for a house, or a trip. You may not want you or your family to go into debt for one big day. Or you simply cannot afford a lavish wedding and prefer not to settle for something more modest. The average U.S. wedding, according to Reuters, costs more than $27,000, which is the price of a small car. If you’ve dreamed of a romantic getaway, the money you save from the wedding could be used for a trip to Tahiti.

Style. Perhaps you are just a shy couple who would rather not be the center of attention. There may also be cultural and/or religious differences that you don’t know how to negotiate.

Be casual if you wish!

Is it selfish to elope? Perhaps you could see it that way, but it’s still your decision, and for some couples it is really the best decision. While weddings are about families joining together, the time may not be right. For couples who have been married before, they may feel the need to shy away from the entire wedding extravaganza. But, remember, by eloping you may be depriving your family of an important milestone, and you may incur the wrath of grandma for years to come.

There are many ways you can break the big news to the family and have a celebration at a later date, and maybe soothe grandma’s feelings, too. A party after an elopement can be a lot more relaxed that the wedding reception. Today an elopement can be a very good decision. Stay tuned.

Thank you Garth Woods for the beautiful photos.

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What Can We Learn from Celebrity Weddings?

Is there anything to be learned from celebrity weddings for us common folks? Up until now I’d say no. Of course how would I know since I’ve never read about them, wrote about them, or cared about them. Until now. You’d have to live in a cave to not have heard about Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt getting married. How does this famous couple’s nuptials stack up to the rest of us?

Like many couples today, they waited a long time to marry, nine years. Like many couples with children, whether from previous marriages or theirs together, the kids were the motivation. For families tying the knot – it truly means a lot, because clearly marriage represents a promise of safety and security, and this is something children need.

There were some interesting elements in the Brangelina wedding. The famous couple had said many years ago that they wouldn’t marry until same-sex couples also had equal rights. And while there are still only 19 states with marriage equality, the tide has turned and the time had finally come for them. You can bring your world-view into your wedding in many ways, but Brad and Angie didn’t make any political statements; it was a statement of their commitment to each other and their family.

So how did they involve their children? The same way most people do. The older children escorted their mother down the aisle, the younger girls tossed petals and the younger boys were the ring bearers.  But it was the dress that told the story, and it was especially creative and beautiful how Jolie had the children’s drawings embroidered onto her designer gown. The point, Jolie explained, was to involve the kids because “that represents the way we live our life together.” Ok, probably only the rich could pull off that trick!

I don’t know if there was more involvement with their children, but I always recommend doing something symbolic with kids. It doesn’t require a seamstress sewing artwork onto your dress. Instead, you can pour sand, give them a keepsake gift, say vows to them, weave ribbons, join hands, or any number of ways to let them know how much the wedding is about them as well as the two of you. Gee, I wish they’d hired me to officiate!

Mature couples often feel less constrained by tradition. This doesn’t mean it’s not meaningful, but perhaps more focused on the important elements of their lives.

The couple also kept their guest list very small, and we can safely assume they could afford any size wedding they wished, but wanted to keep it intimate. Small weddings can be really wonderful, whatever your budget. Again, this is true of many couples today.

I read that Brad Pitt wore a suit out of his own closet. Take note men! But then again, his closet probably holds quite a few appropriate suits.

Will I be writing about more celebrity weddings? Probably not, but I never know where I might find inspiration in the world of weddings.

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Ceremony tips. .. are a few of my favorite things…

I do love ‘raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens,’ but when it comes ceremonies here are a few of my favorites things.

Work those bubbles, or petals, or whatever. If you’re going to have them at the end of your ceremony, make sure everyone is ready to go immediately after the kiss! The newlyweds should be showered in them as they recess for a beautiful feeling and a beautiful photo.

Parents get into the art of the bubbles.

Beyond the bubbles – get people involved! Have your guests say and ‘I do,’ before you do! Have them give voice to their support with a community or support vow.

Honor children. If there are kids involved, especially coming together from previous marriages, express to them how important they are. Make it clear that no one is trying to replace another parent. Love is infinite. There is more than enough to go around.

I love great guests! Each group of wedding guests is a bit different, and from time to time I get a group that laughs, cheers, claps and is thoroughly involved in the ceremony in obvious ways. Boy, do I love that! When the ceremony is not in a house of worship, it’s perfectly ok to applaud after a reading. For the couple, getting that love back from their guests feels great. Don’t hold back. Express your love!

Have the family involved!

Celebrating culture! Bring your heritage into your big day, through rituals, dress, music, décor, or any way your wish! It adds beauty and connects your to the past while moving into the future.

Honor family heritage!

Comfort! A comfortable bride is a happy bride. I love seeing women in dresses that look and feel comfortable. A 15-pound gown isn’t the most fun thing to wear all night, nor is a tightly synched bodice. You can look amazing and still be comfortable in a flowing dress with straps to hold it up. Lace weighs less than beading. Heels don’t have to be 5 inches high to be beautiful and sexy.

It's not strapless and its not beaded, but it is gorgeous!

Be yourself. Don’t do the ‘up-do’ if it’s not you! Notice how lots of men are pairing sneakers with their wedding attire? Why can’t women also be more comfortable and true to their own style? It is possible to look amazing and still not completely break from your personal look.

Of course I also like ‘girls in white dresses with blue satin sashes, snowflakes that stay on my nose and eyelashes, silver white winters that melt into springs, these are a few of my favorite things,’ too!


Thank you Lisa Rhinehart  for your gorgeous photos!

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Tips for Grooms…


The groom and his guys.

Ask any man what was the most stressful day of his life, and a good many of them will tell you it was their wedding day.  Consider what faced them:  family pressures, silk and chiffon, emotional roller coasters before, during and after the Big Day, not to mention publicly declaring one’s love in front of hundreds of friends and relatives!

Well, it doesn’t have to be that way. Many men tell me they enjoyed the process more than they expected, but only when they understood their role and got involved. Here are some suggestions that will help ease the stress and make the wedding day more meaningful for men.

Get involved with the ceremony preparation:  It’s easy to get caught up in the details surrounding the wedding itself, but the words that will be spoken on your wedding day will take you across a threshold of life.  Be a part of the process – in selecting readings, music and rituals.  When you’ve spent time making the ceremony personally meaningful, you’ll be less likely to feel like an outsider at your own wedding.

Rely on your attendants (aka: groomsmen):  Select people who will pitch in when necessary and who have been with you during other stressful occasions, so that you know that they will help you keep your cool.

The men supporting one another.

Take pressure off your partner:  A bride may think she is a superwoman, planning every last detail, but she will certainly appreciate your interest and your help.  Ask her to give you tasks and perform them well, like arranging for activities for out-of-town guests, booking hotels and cars, coordinating airport runs, and giving directions to the officiant, photographer and other wedding professionals.

Ask for help:  On the day of the wedding, designate someone in your family or wedding party to handle stressors surrounding the wedding: family, guests, wedding professionals, parking, etc., so that you can stay above the fray.

Relaxed and enjoying the big day.

Speak from the heart:  If you are writing your own vows, simply write your promise in your own words. Practice your vows in front of a friend before reading them at the wedding (yes, reading, not memorizing!)  To calm your nerves on the day of the wedding, focus only on the one you love, and let the guests melt away as you pledge your love. Don’t forget to have your officiant be sure both your vows and your partners have a sense of equality. And remember, there is no obligation to write vows, there are many wonderful tried-and-true classic vows to choose from.

Know what’s going on:  Take the time to familiarize yourself with all the preparations and details of the Big Day so that you can answer any questions that arise, and they will! In other words, know all the who, what, where and whens. I think you know they why and how.

Don’t worry about the “perfect wedding”:  There’s no such thing.  Most guests won’t even notice “mistakes”, and even if they do, often such gaffes add charm, humor, and authenticity to the event.

More great guys!

Be present in the moment.  Look at your partner during the vows.  Listen carefully to your readers.  Reflect on the meaning of the symbols you have chosen to include in your ceremony, whether wine, candles, flowers or rings.  Remember this moment in time.

If you’ve come to the end of the column and you’re not the groom, just go ahead and print or email it to him. Grooms, if you’ve read this – congratulations and have a great time at your wedding!


Thank you Lisa Rhinehart  for your gorgeous photos!


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Same-Sex Weddings Aren’t All That Different

Now that marriage equality has come to Pennsylvania, I am getting many inquiries from same-sex couples. It’s an exciting time.

What a great couple!

Massachusetts Chief Justice Margaret Marshall wrote in 2004 that: “Marriage is a vital social institution. The exclusive commitment of two individuals to each other nurtures love and mutual support…. It is at once a deeply personal commitment to another human being and a highly public celebration of the ideals of mutuality, companionship, intimacy, fidelity, and family.

Because it fulfills yearnings for security, safe haven, and connection that express our common humanity, marriage is an esteemed institution and the decision whether and whom to marry is among life’s momentous acts of self-definition.”

This is exactly why anyone wants to get married, and I’m proud to stand up for equality and be a small part of social change that brings more love into the world. If you have any doubt on this issue I advocate that you always choose to be on the side of love.

So …now that I’m done pontificating: if you’re wondering about how to approach some of the details of same sex marriages – here are a few ideas and pointers, for couples and for guests.

Processional: If they are on-board have the parents escort each partner in. Or have the couple enter together. This is especially great for couples who have been together a long time. Another processional option is to have each partner walk in from a different direction. Again, I’ve also done this with straight couples, bringing up the obvious point that same-sex weddings are not really significantly different than opposite-sex weddings.

Attendants (bridesmaids/groomsmen) – have both men and women standing on either side. In fact, it is no longer required that only men stand with a groom and only woman stand with a bride. For everyone I advocate that you just have the people you want standing with you.

Notice how they organized the attendants!

Ceremony Language: When I’m not pronouncing the couple as ‘husband and wife,’ I’ve settled on ‘good and truly married,’ at least for the moment. This could change, but for now I like this so much I’m using it for straight couples sometimes.

Addressing the issue of same-sex marriage: I always discuss this with the couple –  it can be very meaningful to make a statement about the difficulties, barriers and discrimination that same-sex couples have faced, and the joy and hope for our future with the progress we have made as a society. It takes bravery for a gay or lesbian couple to stand in front of their family and friends and publicly declare their marriage commitment, when there are still so many people who do not accept it.

Guests: Your support means a lot to the couple, but don’t bring up comparisons to heterosexual couple’s weddings. Don’t expect an over-the-top affair, or otherwise stereotype. Keep your expectations down to earth. Go with the flow.

Wedding cards for same-sex couples are readily available these days. The couple will appreciate that you took the time to find the right one!

Guests – please use the couple’s preferred terminology. Not every woman getting married is, or wants to be called, a bride; not every man thinks of himself as a groom. Let the couple guide you in your use of words, and if you’re not sure, ask, or just use their names. And please continue to follow this guideline after the wedding. Not every married woman is a wife. Not every married man is a husband — if someone always refers to her “partner,” do not say, “How’s your wife?” If you find it impossible to respect language preferences, consider living in a cave or uninhabited island.

With the growing acceptance of LGBT rights and same-sex marriage, we open ourselves up to new ways of thinking, and we all learn and grow. Many of the ideas for the minority, that is in this case, for same-sex couples, will influence the majority of people in creative, egalitarian and meaningful ways.


Thank you to Susie Forrester for the beautiful photos!

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The ‘first look’ is a photo or series of photos capturing the moment when the groom sees his bride for the first time (in her gown before the wedding). It can be amazing, wonderful, and heartfelt. It can also serve a useful purpose. And conversely it can be corny, phony, and overly staged.

Waiting for the 'first look'

I love the idea of getting the photos of the couple, family and bridal party done before the ceremony. Everyone looks their best, and it frees up the couple to go directly to the cocktail hour or party. I have occasionally seen photographers take couples away after the ceremony for far too long. Guests are left waiting to greet them, and honestly, its really awkward standing around until the newlyweds to arrive. It’s anti-climatic.

So if you are taking photos before your ceremony, a first look certainly makes a lot of sense.

Photographer extraordinaire Lisa Rhinehart concurs, when she says: “First looks are great because they allow the couple to enjoy cocktail hour with their family and friends and allows them to have the candid, creative photos that mean so much to them – it’s the best of both worlds!  The day flows smoothly, building up to the ceremony, then once the vows are done, it’s time to relax.”

He sees her!

Obviously I agree. But let me add that on the flip side, it puts a lot of pressure on the groom to make a big deal out of seeing his bride. It is in no way a truly candid moment. However, if it’s done in a low-key way, without raising expectations too high, without too much staging, it can be quite beautiful.

... and they embrace!

If you are thinking of having the ‘first look’ photo, please speak with your photographer. Remind her or him that you would like them to keep some distance. Unless you are an actor or model, and used to being the focus of a camera, it is difficult to have it aiming at you and still have an authentic moment.  Think it through and have a good discussion with your photographer. The best photographers will put you at ease and not get in too close.

Some couples would rather see one another for the first time on their weddings day when the bride walks down the aisle. It’s an old tradition and it has its charm for sure! Your photographer will surely capture this moment, and you might say that it’s the original first look. If this is something you’ve always dreamed, if this is for you, don’t let anyone tell you differently. If the couple is not seeing one another before the ceremony, there are still some photos that can still be taken ahead of time. But, as Lisa says, with the right photographer (and she certainly is one) and the right attitude, you can have it all – that special, intimate moment and a photo to capture it.


Thank you Lisa Rhinehart  for letting me use so many of your gorgeous photos!

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    Lois Heckman

    Lois Heckman is a certified Life-Cycle Celebrant who officiates at weddings, funerals, and other ceremonies in the Poconos and beyond. She has performed hundreds of ceremonies and brings a wealth of knowledge to her work. Follow her on Pinterest, ... Read Full
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