Freemasonry, memento more, skull and bones death

Death in Freemasonry | Symbols and Symbolism

In this installment of Symbols and Symbolism we look at Albert Mackey’s entry in his Encyclopedia of Freemasonry on the subject of Death. More broad than a mere memento mori, or skull and bones. Rather, Mackey equates the sentiment ones passing as the entrance to eternal existence.

Mackey writes,

The Scandinavians, in their Edda, describing the residence of Death in Hell, where she was east by her father, Loke, say that she there possesses large apartments, strongly built, and fenced with gates of iron. Her hall is Grief; her table, Famine and Hunger, her knife; Delay, her servant; Faintness, her porch; Sickness and Pain, her bed; and her tent, Cursing and Howling. But, the Masonic idea of death, like the Christian’s, is accompanied with no gloom, because it is represented only as a sleep, from whence we awaken into another life.

Among the ancients, sleep and death were fabled as twins. The Greek sophist, Old Gorgias, when dying, said, “Sleep is about to deliver me up to his brother;’’ but the death sleep of the heathen was a sleep from which there was no awaking.

The popular belief was annihilation, and the poets and philosophers fostered the people’s ignorance, by describing death as the total and irremediable extinction of live. Thus Seneca says—and he was too philosophic not to have known better—that “after death there comes nothing,” while Vergil, who doubtless had been initiated into the Mysteries of Eleusis, nevertheless calls death “an iron sleep, an eternal night,” yet the Ancient Mysteries were based upon the dogma of eternal life, and their initiations were intended to represent a resurrection. Freemasonry, deriving its system of symbolic teachings from these ancient religious associations, presents death to its neophytes as the gate or entrance to eternal existence. To teach the doctrine of immortality is the great object of the Third Degree. In its ceremonies we learn that live here is the time of labor, and that, working at the construction of a spiritual temple, we are worshiping the Grand Architect for whom we build that temple. But we learn also that, when that live is ended, it closes only to open upon a newer and higher one, where in a second temple and a purer Lodge, the Freemason will find eternal truth.

Death, therefore, in Masonic philosophy, is the symbol of initiation completed, perfected, and consummated.

Additionally, Mackey’s entry on Death in the Ancient Mysteries reads,

Each of the ancient religious Mysteries, those quasi-Masonic associations of the heathen world, was accompanied by a legend, which was always of a funereal character representing the death, by violence, of the deity to whom it was dedicated, and his subsequent resurrection or restoration to life. Hence, the first part of the ceremonies of initiation was solemn and lugubrious in character, ,while the latter part was cheerful and joyous. These ceremonies and this legend were altogether symbolical, and the great truths of the unity of God and the immortality, of the soul were by them intended to be dramatically explained.

This representation of death, which finds its analogue in the Third Degree of Freemasonry, has been technically called the Death of the Mysteries. It is sometimes more precisely defined, in reference to any special one of the Mysteries, as the Cabiric death or the Bacchic death, as indicating the death represented in the Mysteries of the Cabiri or of Dionysus.

Why Does Freemasonry Use Odd Symbols?

Skulls, architectural tools, mallets, aprons… all of these things can we weird. So why does Freemasonry use so many odd symbols? This question is at the heart of many detractors who like to speculate on their nefarious meanings.

Freemasonry is a system of symbol and allegory. By using such symbols, it conveys specific meanings or lessons that each recipient can apply to his personal life and spiritual development.

The skull and bones, or specifically the skull (or death’s head) is actually a symbol to remind us of mortality, as it is the ultimate equalizer of men of all rank, as none can avoid its inevitability. This is more a means to remind us that no matter our station in life, rich or poor, we are all subject to the same fate, and that our goal should be to make this world better for everyone. All Masons should always strive for our noble endeavor of spreading brotherly love, relief, and truth. The hourglass similarly reminds us of the swift passage of time, so as not to delay. The Temple of Solomon has many meanings within Masonry; most significantly it represents the Temple built to hold the laws of God to man in the Judaic tradition. Though its use implied a religious connotation, its application is universal and serves as an allegory to a deeper meaning.

More in the series:

What is Freemasonry? – Part 1: What is a Freemason?
What is Freemasonry? – Part 2: How Old is Freemasonry?
What is Freemasonry? – Part 3: Why are Freemason’s Secretive?
What is Freemasonry? – Part 4: Is Freemasonry a Patriotic Body?
What is Freemasonry? – Part 5: Why Brotherly Love, Relief and Truth?
What is Freemasonry? – Part 6: Why is Freemasonry a Ritual Practice?
What is Freemasonry? – Part 7: Why Does Freemasonry Use Odd Symbols?

From the ebook: What is Freemasonry?

My Mentor Passes on to the Celestial Lodge

masonic holidays, foundations, important dates

My Masonic mentor, friend, and Brother Dr. John “Doc” Schwietert passed away this morning. Doc epitomized the word ‘Mason’ in everything that he did. He was a devoted member of the Blue Lodge, York Rite, and Shrine. While Doc was a man that found great purpose in his Masonic involvement, it was his ability to pass on that same pride in the fraternity that truly defined him as a Mason. Doc was the first Mason that I had ever met when he investigated me for admission into the Lodge and he mentored me through the Third Degree catechism.

Doc Schwietert was in his 80’s when he became my mentor. But when we met to discuss the proficiencies, he didn’t seem a day older than me. I would call him late at night when I was finished with my work and he would be happy to have me over. Sometimes it would be 10:30 or later in the evening, but Doc was a night owl and enjoyed his Masonic company. I would ring the doorbell to his house and he would meet me at the door by saying, “Oh, don’t ring the bell, you’ll wake my wife. Just give three distinct knocks,” after which he would cackle and slap his knee. We would talk about the catechism and Masonry for hours. He was always excited to see how I interpreted the lessons and would give his own personal view of Masonry’s symbolism. When I would make a mistake in reciting the ritual, Doc wouldn’t be rude with me. Instead he would throw down his book, smile, and say, “No honey, this is how you do it!” Then he would continue to teach me the correct way to perform it with all of the patience of a loving grand father. When our sessions would end, he would pat me on the back and say, “We love ya Brother!”

The night that I presented my Master Mason proficiency in lodge will always be the greatest memory I have of my mentor. Doc suffered from a respiratory ailment and had to carry an oxygen supply with him everywhere he went. However, as he seated me in the middle of the lodge he waved any seating arrangement for himself, slung his oxygen tank over his arm, clasped his hands behind his back, and stood up straight with his chest puffed out. He was proud of me and he was proud of our presentation. As he asked me the questions and listened to me respond, his smile became wider and his shoulders raised even further. It was the last time Doc made a presentation in lodge and I hold that memory very dear to my heart. It was Doc Schwietert’s last stand and I am honored to have been a part of his opus.

Doc is the reason I became a Mason, he is the reason that I am still a Mason, and he is the reason that I will always be a Mason and will never stop laboring for this fraternity. With that, I would like to present one of my Freemasonic Fables entitled Ode to a Mentor. It will only take you a moment to realize that it was written about my friend Doc Schwietert.

Doc, if you can see this, thank you for everything, my Brother. May we meet again when I too shuffle off of this mortal coil.

Ode to a Mentor

Eli was one of the finest Masons I have ever met. He was a two-time past master, never missed a lodge function, always treated every Brother with respect, and mentored every single candidate who received the degrees of Masonry for an entire decade. I was lucky enough to be one of his pupils during this time. After each degree, Eli would come up to me, hand me his phone number, and say, “Call me when you are ready to study this a bit, I have all sorts of time on my hands.” The next day, I would place the phone call and would be graciously invited to his humble abode that evening to work on my proficiency.

When I would arrive, I’d always forget that I was not to ring the doorbell (his wife was asleep). However, Eli wouldn’t dare scold me for it, instead he would politely remind me, “Just give three distinct knocks,” then he’d slap his knee and give a good hearty cackle. Once inside, we would sit down and go through the catechism. Eli would never hesitate to correct me, “No honey! You do it this way!” His enthusiasm was infectious and his love for Masonry was great. We would also discuss a plethora of other topics ranging from the history of the lodge to current events of the day. I would always learn a lot and many times Eli and I would chat until well after eleven o’clock.

When the time would come for me to prove up in lodge, Eli would always tell everyone how studious and impressive I was. He did that with all the candidates, but you’d feel like you were the only person he had ever said that to before. As we went through the questions, Eli would smile and nod every time I answered correctly. After we were through, he would lead the lodge in a thunderous applause. Eli always made you feel special.

I was invited to a lodge banquet while I was still a Fellow Craft. When I arrived, everyone was already seated and I felt like a fish out of water. Then I heard, “Well if it isn’t my number one student! Come and sit down, honey!” Eli would then proceed to introduce me to everyone and made sure that I was involved in every conversation. When we would part for the evening, Eli would always remind me, “We love ya’ Brother,” and would give me a pat on the back.

Now, I am the one mentoring our new Brethren. Everything I do is almost an exact reflection of how Eli treated me. I consider myself one of his disciples and our job is to make every Brother feel welcome and well informed. Last week, I was examining a new Fellow Craft in lodge. I automatically told everyone how impressed I was with his studies.

Eli grabbed me after lodge and said, “If I remember right, I said the same thing about you when you were going through.”

I put my arm around his shoulder and replied, “You don’t suppose I took a few lessons from an old pro do you?” I winked and Eli smiled.

As we were climbing into our cars Eli yelled out, “Love ya’ Brother!” That is when I realized that I had finally found the secret of Freemasonry.