Get us to the officiator on timeIt’s 10 minutes to wedding time on a recent Sunday evening at a plush Seoul hotel. Sweat rolls down Eun Hee-gwon’s face. Mr. Eun, wearing a decently tailored suit topped off with a white orchid on the pocket, takes sips of ice water. For this special evening, Mr. Eun had his face massaged and lightly powdered.
At 6 p.m., Mr. Eun finds his place at the end of the aisle ― but it’s not the groom’s position.
Mr. Eun is 63 years old. And he is officiator at the wedding of Lee Sang-hun and Kim Su-eun, a couple that he barely knew before today.
Mr. Eun, a former businessman, is not a priest by any measure of the imagination. But one title he does hold is president of the Korea Certified Wedding Presiders Association, a group of professional wedding officiators. For the simple act of declaring Mr. Lee and Ms. Kim husband and wife, Mr. Eun is paid 100,000 won ($83).
Mr. Eun is in the business of overseeing vows. And these days, his indispensible line of work is keeping him hopping.
Most Koreans follow a Western-style wedding, though not necessarily with a religious bent. So instead of having a priest preside over a wedding, it is customary to ask a respected teacher, professor or acquaintance of the groom to lead the affair. One of the officiator’s major responsibilities is extending some heartfelt comments, mostly in the form of blessings, to the couple.
In the past, some of the most sought-after officiators were big-name politicians, but election laws now prohibit them. Nowadays, it is more common to have a university professor officiate at a wedding, but that does not always work out quite right.
“Nonprofessionals are not accustomed to making proper statements at a wedding,” Mr. Eun says. “But a wedding is a once-in-a-lifetime event and thus an expert is needed to officiate over the ceremony.”
The key to Mr. Eun’s prosperity is that not all couples can lure a person of considerable reputation to preside at their wedding. His company fills in the gap here, as members of Mr. Eun’s association have all had impressive careers of one sort or another.
A groom now has only to type in “wedding officiator” on an Internet search engine to find a respectable officiator, whereas in the past it required days of phone calls and legwork, not to mention a few well-chosen gifts. For now at least, Mr. Eun’s association pops up at the top of search results for wedding leaders. Since launching the company in May 2002, Mr. Eun has led at least two weddings each weekend.
Mr. Eun never planned to work in the wedding business. But after retiring, he needed something to fill his time and energy. After hearing about a program that groomed experts in family ritual standards at the Ministry of Health and Welfare, he polished off a one-week course on Korean wedding rituals and hung out his shingle.
According to ministry official Kim Hee-bong, Mr. Eun was among 600 individuals to apply for the course last year. This year, 300 have applied for the course thus far.
As if in the prime of his career, Mr. Eun’s name card boasts four titles, each written vertically in Chinese characters: director of family rituals for the Ministry of Health and Welfare; honorary professor at the Korea Ritual Foundation; vice president of the Korean Clan Association and president of Korea Certified Wedding Presiders Association. But it’s the tiny illustration of a wedding officiator, squeezed between a bride and groom, that stands out most.
As wedding march music plays, the bride walks down the aisle before Mr. Eun is introduced by the emcee as the groom’s respected teacher.
That is not quite true. But it seems to go over the audience’s head; they seem impressed by Mr. Eun’s titles, each read aloud by the emcee. Mr. Eun, sporting the most benevolent smile on earth, tells the bride and groom to exchange their wedding vows. Then it’s show time: Mr. Eun launches into his well-oiled speech of eternal bliss, which continues for a good quarter hour.
His speech, obtained from the government program, contains tidbits of information from both Asian and Western culture.
Mr. Eun begins with a string of indecipherable Chinese proverbs regarding happy marriage life, such as “The bride should be able to make a home full of happiness and peace for the groom.” Suddenly a row of candles behind Mr. Eun, each supported by a long, thin pole, sway and appear ready to collapse. Mr. Eun, however, keeps his composure and goes on preaching.
“To achieve happiness in life, which is wealth and honor, a good marriage life is essential,” he goes on. “Well, I myself have been president of Aju Cement Corp. and earned several billion won. And I’ve learned that the more I gave to my parents, the more prosperous my business became. It’s like the give-and-take rule, you know the saying in English, If you pay your due respects, you’ll get paid off.”
After his well-meaning speech enters the 15-minute mark, a baby’s cries break the calm and the audience starts to whisper. Apparently getting the hint, Mr. Eun wraps up his speech, saying “Now I’ll put an end to my simple and short speech.”
With the speech over, Mr. Eun takes some liberties of his own by making the bride and groom bow to their parents. He also orders the groom’s father to hug his new daughter-in-law. Then the bride and groom step out of the wedding hall.
His duties fulfilled, Mr. Eun finds a seat at a dining table. While trying out some sushi and barbecued meat from the copious banquet, Mr. Eun shares some peculiar episodes from other weddings. There was the wedding last October where the bride did not show up.
“The strangest experience was seeing a woman appear holding a baby, and announce to the groom ‘You’re the father of the baby!’ I stopped the wedding.”
The funniest incident Mr. Eun recalls occurred while he was giving a speech; the bride suddenly whispered to him, “Sir, I’ve not eaten a bite for three days, so I’m starving. Please make it short.”
At another wedding that Sunday, the bride collapsed while walking down the aisle. “I tackled the situation, saying ‘Well, it’s the first time for the bride, no wonder she’s a bit tense. Let’s give the bride a big hand,’” Mr. Eun says. As he must sometimes officiate at two or more weddings in the same hall, he readies himself with more than one version of a speech.
Mr. Eun enjoys this new job in a time of his retirement. “There is no business as good for an elderly retiree as officiating at weddings,” he says. The proof appears shortly; a sister of the groom shows up with an envelope stuffed with cash. “You were so great, Mr. Eun,” she tells him. “This is our small token of appreciation.”
After finishing his meal, Mr. Eun heads to the aisle for a few photos with the newlyweds. It was a picture-perfect wedding ― though in a few years the bride and groom may not remember Mr. Eun’s name.
by Chun Su-jin
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