My grandmother died on Sunday. It was unexpected, though long coming. She was definitely getting up there in age, and had been diabetic for most of her life. She was never a member of OES, but was a Rainbow girl, and both of her parents were heavily involved in Masonry. In fact, her father was the one that I put on my own petition for Star. Within the Masonic community, death is something that is talked about, that we are reminded of constantly, and not just because of the aging membership.
Masonic Ritual and Death
Death is a reoccurring theme throughout various Masonic degrees. For instance, the major theme of the first degree, Entered Apprentice, is birth; for the Fellowcraft, childhood and becoming a man; for the Master Mason, our own mortality. Symbols discussed during the third degree include the hourglass, an emblem of the human life, and a reminder that we should use each minute wisely; the scythe, an emblem of time, that cuts “the brittle thread of life”; the setting maul, an emblem of causalities or diseases that may kill us; the spade, which digs our graves; the coffin, which contains our remains. The final symbol is one of hope, however, the sprig of acacia, which is evergreen, and reminds us that we have an immortal part that survives the grave.
When becoming a member of the Scottish Rite, as well as some other degrees, the candidate is placed in a chamber of reflection before being called upon to receive his degree. These chambers usually contain items that remind us of death and time, such as a skull, a sickle or scythe, an hourglass, and a candle. The idea here is that the candidate should take this time to meditate on how Freemasonry has and will change his life. He may be asked about his duties to his fellow men, himself, and God. Sometimes he is also asked to make a will while in the chamber.
A common symbol seen within and without of Masonry, is the skull and crossbones. Within Masonry, the symbol is most often seen within chambers of reflection or on tracing boards, used for teaching Masonic symbols. The skull and crossbones stands as the symbol for the phrase “momento mori”, which translates from Latin as “remember death” or “remember you must die”. It has been said that the skull and crossbones “stands as the primary reminder that death is ever immanent”. Some brothers choose a lighter thought, however, and feel that the skull and crossbones is not associated with death, but instead with rebirth, and serves as a reminder of the temporal worth that calls for spiritual and intellectual awakening.
The topic of death follows Masons even outside of the Lodge room. Many towns and cities have their own Masonic graveyards, that usually require that the person being buried be in good standing with a Lodge at the time of their death, as well as their spouse. Even at a non-Masonic graveyard, you will find square and compasses, the Eastern star, and many other Masonic symbols on the headstones.
There is also a public Masonic funeral ritual that all Masons are afforded if they are in good standing at the time of their death. Below is a recreation of the service.
A few of the other Masonic groups have their own ritual as well.These include Eastern Star, Templars (theirs is super awesome), and even DeMolay. There are also special ceremonies done during open Lodge/Chapter/etc to remember members who have passed. These are usually done once a year.
I want to leave you with the final paragraph that is said to the candidate at the end of the Master Mason degree. I encourage you to meditate on them yourself.
“Thus my Brother, we close our lecture on the emblems, with the solemn thought of death. We are all born to die. We follow our friends to the brink of the grave; and, standing on the shore of a vast and boundless ocean, we gaze with exquisite anxiety until the last struggle is over, and we see them sink into the fathomless abyss. We feel our own feet slipping from the precarious brink on which we stand. A few more rolling suns and we, too, will be ‘whelmed, ‘neath death’s awful wave, to rest in its stilly shades; and darkness and silence will reign around our melancholy abode.”
-Nebraska Monitor of Ceremonies
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