Masonic funeral services are one of the most beautiful ceremonies of the Craft. They provide an opportunity for the fraternity to reflect on the memory of a Brother at his passing and to show his family a bit about the organization he was a member of. They often provide an introduction to freemasonry for the friends and loved ones of a Brother who has passed and I’ve known a few men who petitioned to join the fraternity after witnessing a service.
From 2003 to 2008 I was secretary of the only Masonic Lodge I belonged to at the time. This was a time when many of those Brethren who were members of the Greatest Generation, that generation that had won World War II and helped bring greater prosperity to our country and the developed world, were passing from this life in great numbers. I remember one winter in that time when the lodge performed six Masonic Funeral Services in less than a month. Suffice it to say that as lodge secretary I saw more of these services than I wanted to. Over the years I have had the opportunity to learn the Chaplain part in the ceremony and have given that part many times. Recently I learned the Worshipful Master part, though I haven’t yet had to perform the part in a ceremony.
I know that the ritual and work of Masonic Funeral Rites vary by jurisdiction and your jurisdiction may have more explicit instruction on the subject I am about to discuss, but having observed or participated in many of these services in Illinois, I have noticed that there doesn’t seem to be a prescribed manner in which the Great Lights of Freemasonry should be displayed. In fact, I am not sure that I have seen them borne into the room in which the ceremony takes place and placed on the table set out for that purpose the same way twice.
This has led me to the question of this paper--how should the Great Lights of Freemasonry be displayed at a Masonic Funeral Service in Illinois? And my thoughts as I shared them with a group of my Brethren that gather monthly to practice the work and discuss the craft.
Let’s start with what instruction is given. The Book of Ceremonials of the Most Worshipful Grand Lodge Ancient Free and Accepted Masons of the State of Illinois states, “The Holy Bible should be borne in a funeral procession and open at the 12th Chapter of Ecclesiastes, with the square on one page and the compasses on the other.” So while the Book of Ceremonials assumes the Bible as a Brother’s Volume of the Sacred Law and contemplates a graveside service; we can follow its instruction that the Bible, if it is a Brother’s VSL, should be opened to a specific Book, Chapter, and Verse and that the square and compasses should be on separate pages, regardless of the location of the service.
What isn’t instructed is how the VSL should be situated in the room or area in which the service takes place, which page each tool should be on, and why. The following discussion is offered to illustrate and explain one method of situating the VSL and placing the tools and the symbolism portrayed in that method. The discussion is an opinion. It carries no official weight or authority and imposes no requirements on anyone. You are free to use it or ignore it-- your choice.
As it accommodates an assembly of Freemasons, it makes sense that the room or space in which the Masonic Funeral Service takes place should, as closely as practical, be interpreted to be or be situated in the form of a lodge. In this situation, the Officiating Master would be in the East and the table provided for the display of the Great Lights would take the place of the lodge’s altar. The Great Lights would be placed upon the table in a like manner as on a lodge’s altar. The officer charged with displaying the Great Lights would carry them to the west side of the table, face the east, and place them upon the table in the same manner as they are placed upon a lodge’s altar with the Bible opened to the 12th Chapter of Ecclesiastes, the text-oriented so that it would be readable to him as he faces east. He would place the opened compasses on the right page of the Bible, on his right, and the square on the left.
To begin to understand the symbolism of this suggested placement of the square and compasses, let us consider an excerpt from the paper, The Square and Compasses, produced by the Grand Lodge of Texas and published on the website masonictrowel.com. “In ancient symbolism, the square signified the earth, while a circle, drawn with the compasses, represented the heavens. For the Freemason, the Square represents what is earthly and material while the Compasses signify the heavenly and the spiritual. It is not without significance then that the position of the points of the compasses within the interlaced Square and Compasses changes as the Freemason progresses from an Entered Apprentice Mason to a Fellowcraft Mason and finally to a Master Mason. It represents his progression in life from the here to the hereafter, from birth to the everlasting life, from the seeker of human knowledge to the seeker of divine understanding where the spiritual has obtained full mastery and control over the earthly and material.”
So as a Mason progresses through his life it is hoped that the weaker part of him, his earthly nature, represented by the square, will yield to and be subdued by the better part, his divine spiritual nature, symbolized by the compasses. And when his “journey of life has ended” the better part, the compasses are emblematically separated from and placed to the right on the Bible and the weaker, the square, to the left; as his immortal spirit separates from and leaves the remains of his mortal body here on Earth and ascends to “that house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.”
I hope you have found this discussion interesting. I hope it has given you something to reflect on the next time you are in the lodge or the next time you join with your Brethren to offer to the memory of a Brother, “this tribute of affection.”
Brian L. Pettice, 33° is a Past Master of Anchor Lodge No. 980 and plural member of Olive Branch Lodge No. 38 in Danville, IL, and an Honorary Member of a couple of others. He is also an active member of both the York and Scottish Rites. He cherishes the Brothers that have become Friends over the years and is thankful for the opportunities Freemasonry gives and has given him to examine and improve himself, to meet people he might not otherwise have had chance to meet, and to do things he might not otherwise have had a chance to do. He is employed as an electrician at the University of Illinois and lives near Alvin, IL with his wife Janet and their son Aidan. He looks forward to sharing the joy the fraternity brings him with others. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.