By R. F. Smith, Jr.

He was about 50. Came to his pastor with a question about that part of the marriage ceremony which says, “‘Til death do us part.” Wanted to know if after death—in heaven—he would still be married to his wife.

The pastor figured something deeper was behind his question. He asked him why he wanted to know.

“Well,” the man confessed, “l was just wondering about it. You see, I think I can hang on until death—but heaven…?”

Too much truth here to laugh. He voiced feelings and fears for more people than we dare admit. One out of two marriages is not hanging on ’til death. (That’s our divorce rate.)

Some couples are asking that the statement—“’Til death do us part”—be taken out of the ceremony. They want such phrases as: “Until we are no longer compatible,” or “Until we no longer find fulfillment,” or “Until we no longer desire each other.”

Some are writing their own marriage contracts in which they put renewal options. They propose to maintain the marriage for two (maybe three) years after which time they can decide to divorce or renew the contract. Others are leaving the phrase in the ceremony but are not taking it seriously. Many people are putting a big question mark after the word, “death,” in the phrase.

And one wonders if marriage has a chance when entered into without a sense of permanency. Does it not become more of a legitimate affair to be terminated at the whim of either, than a commitment of two people to establish an environment in which two personalities can grow and flourish? Most of the things we enter into on a temporary basis become just that—temporary.

The professor urged us to attend the concert. Beethoven’s works would be featured. Then he told a story:

A college freshman who had never heard of Beethoven or his music wandered into the college chapel where a Beethoven concert was about to begin. He told the professor sitting beside him he thought he’d come to check out the music. To give it a try.

“Young man,” the professor warned, “Beethoven is not on trial. You are!” The institution of marriage is not on trial. It’s worth . . . beauty . . . joy . . . meaningfulness has been proved.

And I doubt if its beauty and meaningfulness can be discovered short of the commitment. “‘Til death do us part.”

Article adapted from Contact magazine, February 1991.