Read about our new documentary, Absent From Our Own Wedding in The Guardian
US state allows marriages in which neither party is actually there, explored in documentary Absent from Our Own Wedding.
For some nervous betrothed couples a proxy marriage might sound too good to be true: if there really were such an easy way to avoid the stress and fuss of a wedding ceremony, surely everyone would do it?
But marriages in which neither the bride nor groom are present happen all the time, and not only in countries with very different customs and laws to Britain.
The award-winning British documentary maker and former actor Debbie Howard recently released the first film about a US duo who run a thriving proxy marriage business from their rural home in Flathead county, Montana.
Her film Absent from Our Own Wedding tells the remarkable story of the retired husband and wife team Tom and Teresa Kennedy, who conduct about 500 weddings a year for a fee of $750 (£530), without ever meeting a blushing bride or a gallant groom.
Montana is the only US state where double proxy weddings are legal and the Kennedys believe their business, Armed Forces Proxy Marriages, offers a useful service to couples who cannot arrange to be together on their big day.
Tom Kennedy said: “I stumbled on this law and now we just love doing it and we want to carry on. We are not doing it for the money. We are fine, because Teresa was a stockbroker and I worked in public service for around 25 years, including a long time in the fire department.”
The obscure Montana law dates back to the 1860s, Tom explained, and was initially a way to help out male miners. “All the women were on the east coast and it was not seen as proper to bring them to tough all-male mining communities to get married,” he said.
Teresa, 56, regularly stands in for either the bride or the groom, who can be same-sex, while a colleague steps up to play their intended. Tom will often conduct the ceremony.
In the past double, proxy marriage was possible in Montana for anyone who applied from anywhere in the world, but 10 years ago the law was changed. Now one of the two getting married must be a resident of Montana – or on active duty in the armed services.
“Outside of Montana very few people have heard of this,” said Tom, 66. “It is very obscure and even federal officials know nothing about it. The fact is, in Montana you do not even need to be a magistrate or a judge to marry people. You just have to appear to be of sound mind to those who are present at the time. You could even marry yourselves.”
Howard’s documentary, made by Big Buddha Films, was shot in Montana last year and is now showing as part of the Real Stories strand on YouTube.