The Danse Macabre or “Dance of Death” is an artistic allegory of the late middle ages on the universality of death. Its purpose is to show that death is inescapable, and it is the only thing other than birth that we have in common with everything else. In this world, everything is born to die. It normally depicts the dead or a personification of the dead (Usually skeletons) dancing with those of all stations of life (normally depicting the pope, royalty, children, laborers, farmers) to the grave. It is a type of memento mori to remind us of the fragility of life and the certainty of death. If you don’t know what memento mori is, I would refer you to a previous article I wrote a few years ago: (http://www.midnightfreemasons.org/2018/06/memento-mori-death-reflection.html) or one that Bro. Eric Marks wrote last year: (http://www.midnightfreemasons.org/2019/04/memento-mori.html).
It might be macabre but I think that the most beautiful ceremony in Freemasonry is the Masonic Funeral Ritual. It might be because I’ve become used to hearing it in the past few months, having lost a good friend and brother in early December, and having lost a member of one of my home lodge a few weeks ago. However, it defines the purpose of Freemasonry. The purpose of Freemasonry isn’t to make good men better. The purpose of Freemasonry is to teach you how to embrace death.
Think about the experience of the 3rd Degree. The penultimate degree of Freemasonry is based upon death. If Freemasonry was about life, about making good men better, the highest degree would be that of Fellowcraft. In fact, there was a time in Freemasonry where the second degree was the highest in the blue lodge. That’s another article entirely, however. My point being, that if Freemasonry was about life, we wouldn’t be focusing so much on death.
Death permeates the 2nd section of the 3rd degree. If you’ve gone through the degree, you understand what I’m talking about. The entire section is an allegory regarding death. There are a lot of different layers of meanings of what is happening in this section of the 3rd degree, but the main one I think is the idea of death not being the end of life. There is a part during this section where there is a procession around a grave and song being sung. The song commonly is known as the funeral dirge. Once again, if you’ve been through, participated in, or observed the degree, you know the words. However, once again, there’s a lot of things I personally think this represents but given the definition above, is it not a Danse Macabre?
Death is the work that we as Freemasons are trying to master. As the 3rd degree lecture on the emblems begins to end, we are told from the un-cyphered Illinois book of Standard work:
”Thus my brother, we close our lecture on the solemn thoughts of death: we are born, we breathe, we suffer, we mourn and we die. Yes, my brother, we are all born to die. We follow our friends to the brink of the grave and, standing on the shore of a vast ocean, gaze with exquisite anxiety until the last dreadful struggle is over, and see them sink into the fathomless abyss. We feel our own feet slide from the precarious bank on which we stand, and but a few suns more, my Brother, and we too will be whelmed mid death’s awful waves, there rest in the stilly shade where the worm shall cover us and naught but silence and darkness reign around our melancholy abode.
But is this the end of man and the expiring hope of faithful Masons? No, blessed be God, but true to our principles we pause not at our first or second step, but press forward for greater light; and as the last embers of mortal life are yet feebly glimmering in the socket of existence, the Bible, that Great Light in Masonry, lifts the shroud, draws aside the sable curtains of the tomb, and bids hope and joy rouse up to sustain and cheer the departing spirit. It points beyond the dark valley of the shadow of death and bids us turn an eye of faith and confidence to the vast and opening scenes of boundless eternity.”
Death is the great leveler.
We need to reflect upon death.
However, if we follow and apply the tenets of your chosen book of faith, that there is hope in the afterlife, whatever you define that as.
As the Illinois Masonic Funeral Ritual begins, we begin with what we are taught upon our first admission into a lodge, that we should evoke the blessing of deity before any great undertaking. The ritual begins with the chaplain's prayer and has this line that really stands out for me:
“Standing by the open portals of this house appointed for all the living, we pray for light—for light to illuminate the dark path which our brother has trod, for light to drive away all the shadows of mortality and reveal to our anxious souls those serene heights of joy and beauty, whither, we trust, our brother has ascended.”I was given a book for Christmas from the Secretary of St. Joseph Lodge #970, WB Curt Bolding. Curt is a man that I consider a brother in the truest sense of the word. He is like family to me and is very much the older brother I never had. The title of the book is God and the Afterlife by Jeffery Long, MD, and Paul Perry. Dr. Long did a survey of 1,122 people from around the world and having different social-economic and religious backgrounds that have had a near-death experience. It asks 16 questions of these people, and those that score a 7 or above qualifies an experience as an NDE. In all of the experiences, there are twelve elements that usually occur in consistent order during an NDE. One of which is encountering a brilliant or mystic light. 64.8 percent of those answering the survey said that they encountered a light. It is my personal belief that the light being described above is the light described by a majority of those who have experienced an NDE. Many of these individuals described God as being either this light or surrounded by this light. As God said: “Let there be light.” Is it not possible to think God was already light?
What do we ask for when we are at the altar of Masonry for the first time and the subsequent times after that? Light. At that time, Light has a different meaning, or at least you think it does. I know I thought it did. However, I realize now that the light that we are asking for is the light that we pray for here. That light will illuminate us in the darkness of death, and which will comfort us in our journey into the lodge on high. A divine light.
As the funeral ritual continues, The Worshipful Master reiterates what is taught in the emblem lecture of the 3rd degree:
“Change and decay are written upon every living thing. The cradle and the coffin stand side by side, and it is a melancholy truth that as soon as life begins to live that moment also, we begin to die.”
“We go on from design to design, add hope to hope, and layout plans for the employment of many years. The messenger of death comes when least expected, and at a moment which to us seems the meridian of our existence. What are all the externals of human dignity, the power of wealth, or the charms of beauty when nature has paid her just debt? View life stripped of its ornaments and exposed in its natural weakness, and we see the vanity of all earthly things save those which go to the growth and perfection of individual character. In the grave all fallacies are detected, all ranks are leveled, all distinctions are done away. Here the scepter of the prince and the of the beggar lie side by side.”
“Happy, indeed, it for us—and blessed the agencies which have made it possible—that while our eyes may be dim with tears as we think of our departed brother, we may in the sincerity of our hearts, accord to his memory the commendation of having lived a useful and exemplary life and as a just and upright Mason.”The ritual then continues onto what I think is the most wonderful summary of about what we should our fraternity is trying to teach us:
“And now, my brethren, let us see to it, and so regulate our lives by the plumb line of justice, ever squaring our actions by the square of virtue, that when the Grand Warden of Heaven shall call for us we may be found ready. Let us cultivate assiduously the noble tenets of our profession—Brotherly Love, Relief, and Truth. From the square learn morality; from the level, equality; and from the plumb, rectitude of life. With the trowel spread liberally the cement of brotherly love; circumscribed by the compasses, let us ponder well our words and actions, and let all the energies of our minds and the affections of our souls be employed in the attainment of our Supreme Grand Master’s approbation. Then, when our dissolution draws nigh, and the cold winds of death come sighing around us—and his chill dews already glisten upon our foreheads—with joy shall we obey the summons of the Grand Warden of Heaven, and go from our labors on earth to eternal refreshment in the paradise of God, where, by the benefit of the pass of a pure and blameless life, and an unshaken confidence in the merits of the Lion of the tribe of Judah, shall we gain ready admission into the celestial lodge where the Supreme Architect of the Universe presides. There, placed at His right hand, He will be pleased to pronounce us just and upright Masons”We are then reminded again of the inevitability of death:
“The LAMBSKIN, or white apron, was the first gift of Freemasonry to our departed brother. It is an emblem of innocence and the badge of a Freemason. This I now deposit upon the casket. We are reminded here of the universal dominion of death. The arm of friendship cannot interpose to prevent his coming; the wealth of the world cannot purchase exemption; nor will the innocence of youth or the charms of beauty change his purpose.”
“This evergreen is an emblem of an enduring faith in the immortality, of the soul. By it, we are reminded that we have a life within us that shall survive the grave, and which can never die. By it, we are admonished that we also. like our brother whose remains lie here before us, shall soon be clothed in the habiliments of death. Through our belief in the mercy of God, we may confidently hope that our souls will bloom in eternal spring. This, too, I deposit with our deceased brother.” And here: “Soft and safe be the earthly bed of our brother; bright and glorious be his rising from it. Fragrant be the acacia sprig which shall flourish there. May the earliest buds of spring unfold their beauties over his resting place, and, in the bright morning of the world’s resurrection, may his soul spring into newness of life and expand into immortal beauty in realms beyond the skies. Until then, dear friend and brother, until then—Farewell!”
“If we feel that there is one tie less binding us to the earth, may we also feel that there is another, and a deathless tie, binding us to heaven. And there shall be no night there. O blessed assurance; the last farewell spoken, the last sigh breathed, the last cry of anguish changed into an anthem of immortal joy.”As our journey in Freemasonry begins by asking for light, it ends the same way. I think these final lines prove the idea of the light we seek is that divine light that I mentioned above. The final prayer ends with:
“And now, O God, we pray for Thy hand to lead us in all the paths our feet may tread, and when the journey of life is ended may light from our immortal home illuminate the dark valley of the shadow of death, and voices of loved ones, gone before, welcome us home to that house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens, where no discordant voice shall arise, and all the soul shall experience shall be perfect bliss, and all it shall express shall be perfect praise. and love divine ennoble every heart and hosannas exalted employ every tongue. Amen.”It is our goal as Freemasons to become a perfect ashlar. Only through the application of the tenets of Freemasonry, will we be able to become the perfect ashlar, and that ashlar is only perfected in death when it can be used by the Supreme Architect of the Universe to help build the house not made with hands eternal in the heavens. If we truly live our lives as Freemasons, we should not fear death. We should embrace it. As death sets us free from this world, embracing death sets us free as Freemasons. Instead of living with the existential pain of the consciousness of death, we are free to pursue anything we want to pursue and we are able to conquer any obstacle in our lives. Once you accept the inevitability of death, you can finally begin to live your life because you have faith in the afterlife. That is the most important lesson that Freemasonry can teach you. It can teach you how to be truly free.
Due to what I posit above, I think those that argue that skulls should not be a part of Freemasonry are missing the entire point of the craft. The same can be said for those who do not like the idea of having a chamber of reflection. The idea that we should use some symbols to represent reflection upon our mortality but not others because the profane might view us in a negative light is absurd. The skull has been used from time immemorial to represent our mortality. The entire purpose of the chamber of reflection is to have a candidate reflect upon their mortality. If the craft has existed since time immemorial as some have argued, then why shouldn’t we be using the skull or a chamber of reflection? Especially when the entire point of the 3rd degree is to teach you to embrace death by reflecting on your mortality. Most especially when the Masonic Funeral reinforces this.
So, my brothers, I leave you with the solemn thoughts of death, but I also hope that I leave you with something to think about and maybe one question to ponder:
If you are afraid of death, why are you afraid of it?
Do your own reflection. Listen and observe closely during the next 3rd degree or Masonic Funeral you attend. I think you’ll find that there’s nothing to be afraid of.
WB Darin A. Lahners is the Worshipful Master of St. Joseph Lodge No.970 in St. Joseph and a plural member of Ogden Lodge No. 754 (IL), and Homer Lodge No. 199 (IL). He’s a member of the Scottish Rite Valley of Danville, a charter member of the new Illinois Royal Arch Chapter, Admiration Chapter No. 282, and is the current Secretary of the Illini High Twelve Club No. 768 in Champaign – Urbana (IL). He is also a member of the Eastern Illinois Council No. 356 Allied Masonic Degrees. You can reach him by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.