From dust we came and to dust we all must return…
Masonic symbolism and ritual is riddled with images and symbols of our mortality. Why is this? Is it because the fraternity is morbid, or is there a deeper, philosophical reason behind it?
There are very few things that we can all be certain of in this world, but our mortality is not one of them. We all will inevitably come to an end and thus continue the infinite cycle of life. We have always been taught to fear death, ever since we were old enough to understand what it is. But do we really know what it is? The simple answer is “no”. Many mystical traditions teach that death is not the end, but the beginning of a new life. This concept caries through nearly every religious tradition up to the current day.
Death as a symbol is very powerful. It reminds us of the short time that we have here. When we face our mortality it has a profound effect on our consciousness. Not only does it remind us that we should make the most of our short time on earth and to do good in the world, but it also helps us accept that change is inevitable and that we should embrace the unknown. It is also symbolic of the endless cycle of the universe. The universe is constantly dying and being born again. It is this concept that brings us to symbolic death and rebirth.
We see this concept of death and rebirth in the majority of, if not all ancient religious traditions. We see this in the slaying of Osiris by Set and his Resurrection, by Jesus’s death and Resurrection, etc. It is the death of the material and the birth of the spiritual. It is symbolic of a new start that an individual has after becoming enlightened, or saved. It also serves the reminder that we must do our best to live life to the fullest and not take anything for granted. With this rebirth, after a symbolic death, we are encouraged to start anew, with a new sense of obligation to alleviate the suffering of our fellow creatures.
The symbolism of Freemasonry contains many references to death, or Momento Mori. As previously discussed in my blog, the Chamber of Reflection is a perfect example of Masonic symbolism in which the individual is brought face to face with their own mortality. The Chamber consists of a dark room, lit only by candlelight, a table with various symbolic items including a skull, and an ink well and quill for writing a last will and testament. There is also a bible, or holy book that the candidate must read certain passages from that remind them of the importance of living a virtuous life.
Another instance of death symbolism in masonry is in the Legend of Hiram Abiff. Hiram Abiff is the craftsman that is brought in by King Solomon and Hiram, King of Tyre to adorn Solomon’s Temple. Hiram Abiff is given the keys to the mysteries by King Solomon and is the Master Craftsman of the Temple. He is later accosted by three ruffians who hope to obtain the secrets from him, but he refuses, as they are not ready to receive them yet. They end up taking his life. Hiram Abiff is eventually raised by King Solomon and resurrected, bringing the legend full-circle. It is through this legend as told in the Third Degree that the candidate is taught not to be greedy and to seek what is not entitled to them, but to also understand the virtue in secrecy. They are also taught that they must die a symbolic death, to be reborn as a new, spiritual being.
The trestle board or tracing board (a wooden board with symbols on it) that is used for the Third Degree has a coffin and a skull on it. These symbols are representative of Momento Mori, and of the death of the material that the initiate is to go through on their path to finding Light.
To the casual observer these symbols may be grim, or even frightening, but to the initiate they take on much more positive and reaffirming concepts that can be a constant reminder of the impermanence of life and the importance of living with fervency and zeal and being constantly ready to alleviate the suffering of others in any way possible. In doing so, our existence can be etched into the fabric of time as our charity extends beyond the grave.
Here is another article that I found that relates. Hope you enjoy!
The Skull and Crossbones and it’s Masonic Application