|by W.Bro. Chris Aniche Okorafor|
|Past Deputy District Grand Master, Hon. Grand Almoner|
Founder Member and Past Master of Lodge Aro #1772,Arochukwu
Lodge Meridian #1742, Umuahia
District Grand Lodge of Nigeria – Grand Lodge of Scotland
Why a Masonic Burial:
In Nigeria, one of the questions we often have to deal with as Freemasons, relates to why we undertake Masonic funerals for our translated Brethren in the face of our assertion that Masonry is neither a religion nor a substitute for religion. To most people therefore, the concept of a Masonic burial enshrines a great amount of contradiction in tenets. In my often expressed opinion, the answer though is not as complex as is often imagined. Freemasons will not on their own request for or insist on a Masonic funeral for a departed brother. But bearing in mind their commitment to one another and recognizing that on several occasions, their translated Brethren are denied last rites by their respective religious sects, it therefore follows that Freemasons must have to assume the fraternal responsibility of providing the service. This is in consonance with the solemn Masonic injunction regarding a worthy Brother viz “to view their interests as inseparable from his own” and to “maintain his honor and carefully preserve it as [their] own.” There can be no better doctrine on this than as typified in the five p.o.f.
Where on the other hand, the religious association to which the brother is affiliated is willing to provide these last rites, Freemasons respectfully participate in the ceremonies.In doing so, Freemasons are being merely true to their obligations in and tenets of the Order. Principal among these are that each Mason must of a necessity believe in God, rely on Him in all his worthy undertakings and aspire to attain His presence at the conclusion of this his earthly sojourn. Furthermore, each Mason understandably accepts the Antient Charge on ecumenism namely:-
“A Mason is obliged, by his tenure, to obey the moral law; and if he rightly understand the art, he will never be a stupid atheist nor an irreligious libertine … Let a man’s religion or mode of worship be what it may, he is not excluded from the Order, provided he believe in the glorious Architect of heaven and earth, and practice the sacred duties of morality. Masons unite with the virtuous of every persuasion in the firm and pleasing bond of fraternal love; they are taught to view the errors of mankind with compassion, and to strive, by the purity of their own conduct to demonstrate the superior excellence of the faith they may profess.Thus Masonry is the center of union between good men and true and the happy means of conciliating friendship amongst those who must otherwise have remained at a perpetual distance”.
A Masonic funeral may also be classified as being in line with other such ceremonies where what may be regarded as the expected rites are not readily available. This is for instance, a very common practice among people at sea or at war where the captain of the ship, the chaplain or the platoon commander undertakes the burial ceremony for their dead. Furthermore, the seventh corporal work of mercy enunciated by the Christian church is “to bury the dead.” The other six are (1). To feed the hungry; (2). To give drink to the thirsty; (3). To clothe the naked; (4). To redeem the captive; (5). To visit the sick; (6). To entertain the stranger.
Basic thesis behind Masonic Burial:
Masonic funeral rites are based purely on the teachings of the VSL. The fundamental principles behind Masonic Burial, therefore, vary from that of most Christian denominations where the concentration is on praying for the salvation of the soul of the departed. Their belief is that God will be made to modify the scales of justice in favour of their departed associate on account of their burial rituals and orations on his behalf. Masonic funeral rites, on the other hand, follow the generally accepted principles of the religion of the departed brother with the fundamental undiluted recognition of the dogma in the VSL in which it is stated that “it is appointed unto men once to die, but after this the judgment.”The man in the street’s interpretation states that “there is no repentance in the grave.”The VSL also instructs: “Lost indeed are they who treat it as a falsehood that they must meet God.Until on a sudden the hour is on them and they say: ‘Ah woe unto us that we took no thought of it’”[iii]
In a Masonic funeral, the fundamental objective is for the living to be taught the very useful lesson that death is a certitude whose visitation time is unknown. Modern science can predict an approximate week or month in cases referred to as “terminal”, but the precise date and hour are still in the mind of God. Several medical predictions sometimes unpredictably result in an opposite event in that a person with terminal illness ends up living longer normal life.As the VSL teaches: “Men ask thee concerning the Hour; say, ‘The knowledge thereof is with Allah alone’.”
An analysis of the Chaplain’s prayer at a Masonic funeral would better enable one to appreciate this distinction.It reads:-
“Almighty God, who is always more ready to hear than we to pray, and is wont to give than we either to desire or deserve, pour down upon us at this time the divine consolations of Thy Spirit.Support the afflicted in every trial, and may this circumstance, which in the present moment, must extract the fear of friendly commiseration from every tender heart, teach us all the important value of being always ready to meet our God.In the midst of life we are all in death, teach us, therefore, gracious Father, the uncertainty of all human dependencies; and may we spend the present moment, as if we were sure it would be our last.”
The Chaplain goes on to pray as follows:
“Prepare us for all Thy precious intentions: if we live, we may live unto the Lord, or if we die, may we die unto the Lord, that so living or dying, we may be Thine for ever.Sanctify this moment to the conversion of every heart; may the serious and important services in which we have at this time been engaged, leave a suitable impression upon every mind, may the aged read the certainty of death, and may the young read the uncertainty of life; and may we, one and all be fully prepared to give the solemn account, which we know not how soon we may be called to give that when Thou shall call us to render unto every one according to his labour and his work, we may be found amongst the happy number who shall receive that blessed invitation of:- “COME, YE CHILDREN, ENTER YE INTO THE JOY OF YOUR LORD
The prayer is wholly and entirely for the living. It covers aspects of their daily living up to the time of their own respective individual translations to eternal life. There are therefore in the rotations, components related to:-
- The seriousness, importance and relevance of the funeral service in which the assembly is at the time engaged;
- God’s grace for the afflicted in every trial, particularly those related to their bereavement;
- Lesson to all present at the ceremony to the effect that they should-
- accept the certainty of death, and the uncertainty of life;
- recognize the uncertainty of all human dependencies as reliance on such support may fade off unexpectedly;
- be ever ready to meet God and be fully prepared to give a solemn account of their lives on earth;.
- realize that God’s precious intentions for all is life eternal with Him;
- be veritably converted with their hearts dedicated to the observance of the divine laws;
- to which effect they must both live and merit to die in God’s love;
Amongst ourselves within our fraternity:
I will now divert the postulations to our individual selves as Master Masons. As a prelude, it is necessary that we clear the huddle relating to Masonic secrecy. Without dilating on this, suffice it to say that our rituals are printed, published and marketed by institutions some or all of whose personnel are not Masons. Much of what we have as rituals are accessible to the world at large on books, magazines and the internet. It will not therefore be improper to make discreet references to the temple rituals of a funeral lodge or to any other rituals in this article. As Wor. Bro. Yasha Beresiner, WM Quatuor Coronati Lodge No.2076, United Grand Lodge of England stated in his paper delivered in Hebrew to the Quarterly Communication of The Grand Lodge of the State of Israel, Tel Aviv, Tuesday the 21st January 2003. “We need to be reminded that the secrets of Freemasonry are intended for the Freemasons themselves. They are not secrets intended to exclude the outsider. The genuine true secrets of a Mason, however, are to be found in the answer to the questions I am raising in this lecture. What is it that makes us, such a wide body of men, so devoted and dedicated to Freemasonry? The answer to this one true ‘secret’ can only be discovered by those who become Freemasons in mind as well as spirit.”
The funeral lodge is open only to Brethren who had attained the Sublime Degree. They are the ones that would have a real appreciation of its import. In the short address by the RWM at the commencement of a Funeral Lodge, we are requested “to behold the narrow house appointed for all living”, where our departed Brother “sleeps in that peace which the world cannot give or take away.”No “sound proceeds from this narrow house” “save that silent warning: ‘Seek ye the narrow gate and the straight path that lead to eternal life’.”This is but a beneficial reminder to all Master Masons of the significance of that charge which the RWM also made to each of them at that point each can all but recall, relating to his standing “on the very brink …and when this transitory life shall have passed away, will receive [his] mortal body into its cold bosom.” The RWM further emphasizes this reference in his concluding sentence: “Hence we have ordered this Funeral Lodge for the good of the Brethren and in memory of our dead.”The entire rite is therefore directed solely at instructional benefits of the living within a memorial for the translated Brother.
In the concluding prayer before the Lodge is suspended for a procession to the location of the other concluding services of the interment, this concept is reiterated viz: – “… … we render Thee most hearty thanks for the faithful who, having served us on earth, are now at rest in Thee. May their memory prove an inspiration to us, so that by all virtuous and holy living we may make our calling and election sure, to Thy glory and praise, world without end!”
Interface of the Masonic Funeral Rites and The Sublime Degree:
The graces sought and prayed for, namely those of inspiration for a virtuous, holy living and the resultant crown of glory are such as have been illustrated to the Master Mason during the ceremony of his attaining the Sublime Degree. These are specifically alluded to at the prayer on the admission of the Candidate into the temple for the conferment of this degree. At that moment, the Chaplain led the Brethren in praying that the Almighty and Eternal Father endows the Candidate with such fortitude that in the hour of trial he fails not. The prayer was then concluded by requesting God to grant that the Candidate traverses successfully though the travails indicated, which specifically included “through the valley of the shadow of death” to attain and shine like a star in the moral firmament of Freemasonry. Definitely, this is but an allegorical reference to the post closing hour of human earthly existence when we shall all be changed.[vii]
At the closing of the Funeral Lodge, the Chaplain leads the Brethren in praying again for themselves, not for the translated Brother, for much about the same favors as were requested for a Candidate for the third degree namely, “Most glorious God, Author of all good and Giver of all mercy, pour down upon us, Thy sorrowing servants, the consolation of Thy mercy, and strengthen our solemn engagements with the ties of sincere affection. In the passing of our brother, may we be reminded of our mortality, and have our hearts so drawn towards Thee, our only refuge in dangers and distress, that when the time of our own departure shall come we may be sustained and comforted in the dark valley by the sense of Thy gracious presence, and be able to rejoice in the blessed hope of an unbroken fellowship in Thine everlasting Kingdom”
At the Sublime Degree ceremony, the emblems of mortality had been used to illustrate specific teachings. In a Masonic funeral, after depositing the evergreen and apron, the Brethren affirm the same precepts that “this grave, that coffin, this circle of mourning friends, remind us that we too are mortals: soon shall our bodies moulder to dust.”The newly made Master Mason, had though figuratively observed these same objects within a circle of Brethren. He also emblematically observed the “Darkness Visible,” that Light with which to build FAITH in the HOPE which relies on Holy Confidence that death is only a gate to a happier existence in God’s LOVE.He was instructed that the little time allotted to humans in this life is the time to work out these mysteries within the intricacies of this mortal existence “while it is yet day, for the night cometh when no man can work.” God’s assistance to our being able to undertake this task is referred to in the prayer at the grave side viz:- “That we may apply our hearts unto wisdom and leave behind us a fragrant memory of good deeds and holy aspirations. … May Thy mercy O God, guide us through the tangled and troubled ways of life to the rest reserved for Thy people, and to the ineffable glory of Thy immediate presence.”The VSL teaches that “Surely (as for) those who believe and do good deeds, their place of reward shall be the gardens ofparadise,[viii]”
The Masonic Funeral service should therefore be seen for what it is intended, designed and programmed to be, namely, a continuing education session on the Sublime Degree. Within this solemn funeral service “for the benefit of the living, in memory of the translated Brother”, a Master Mason is again given the great and useful lesson, in an actual scene of death and burial, to contemplatively be instructed on how to and be prepared to die.
Prior to being made a Master Mason, he is presumed to have acquired in the preceding Degrees the practice of FAITH and HOPE in God in whom he is encouraged to rely on “in all cases of difficulty and danger.” The VSL was recommended to him for “most serious contemplation” as “a standard of Truth and Justice” which ought to regulate his “actions by the Divine precepts it contains.”He was instructed on the very “useful lessons of natural equality and mutual dependence” of all humans who are also of one origin and one destiny namely, The Creator God Almighty. His binding duties to his family, his neighbor, and to the people in authority in the nation of his birth and nurture or any other he may finds himself in, had been spelt out to him. His avenues of extended researches for truth and wisdom were indicated and he was therefore presumed to be in possession of a heart “purified from every baneful and malignant passion, and fitted only for the reception of truth and wisdom, to [God’s] Glory and the welfare of [his] fellow-creatures.” He was taught to recognize that sooner or later his task on earth would end and he will ascend to the Grand Lodge above where he will receive his unbiased reward “without scruple and without diffidence” for the VSL declares “And, behold, I come quickly; and my reward is with me, to give every man according as his work shall be.
Then came the climax where the virtue of FIDELITY was allegorically and theatrically illustrated with him as the principal actor. Fidelity is a virtue that encompasses FAITH, HOPE AND LOVE (Charity). Here the Master Mason, in the process of being instructed on how to die, physically but symbolically consecrates his eventual grave. This to my knowledge is a sacred privilege open only to a Master Mason and probably a few along some identical mystical line of Truth.As a first of four steps figurative of a Square with all its symbolic meaning, from the West and facing East he steps over, facing South. The process is variedly repeated till he shall have formed the Antient sign of the Cross at the conclusion of the fourth step. In this stepping over process, he has also traversed the intricate windings of this mortal life starting from the place of ignorance (W); to the state of excellence and full maturity (S = Meridian); then to the place of death and darkness (N); and finally approaching the (E) with all its glory.
The Candidate Master Mason, simulating the footsteps of “one of the brightest characters recorded in the annals of Freemasonry, who struggled“with undiminished firmness … remained firm and unshaken” has thus allegorically and figuratively in the first four steps symbolically consecrated what the Masonic Funeral’s ritual terms the material body’s eventual “house.” The stepping over ritual is also precisely representative of the attempted post-meridian prayers’ temple exit ordeals of Master HAB referenced to all Master Masons as a pattern of fidelity and steadfastness should they “ever be placed in circumstances of a similar trial.”
To make up the seven prescribed steps, the Candidate then adopts the Antient rule of three in advancing further to the East where he then figuratively translated, then subsequently rose from the very “hold” he had consecrated and beheld “The Bright Morning Star of Hope whose rising in the human breast brings peace and consolation to the faithful and obedient among men.”
An area of interest worthy of diverting to is some other relevance of this advancing mode in the Sublime Degree which is broken into two parts of four and three steps each. We had alluded to the first part as symbolic of the square and the second doubtlessly symbolising the triangle or to be more specific the compasses. Both are the “instruments in architecture” with which all Master Mason are tried and proven before the lodge is opened in that degree. On the open VSL, the one typifying the spiritual part of man is then fully and completely over the other which represents the lower nature or earthly existence of man.This spiritual symbol now positioned within limits on the S in a lodge that has been duly opened on the C, if enabled by the “constant practice of v… m… and b.. l…, principles emblematically comprehended between the p..s of the C..s will render the circle of [every MM] Masonic duties complete.”
In my humble understanding, Candidate for this degree was as an EA just an infant who later grew to become an FC. When as a MM he eventually and actually translates, he will rise and will no longer need or be in possession of only the “substituted” substance. That which was lost will be known to him in as much the same degree as he is known in the Grand Lodge above. He will no longer be hoping on the “prospects of futurity” nor be peering at the “mysterious veil” because he will then be in the Light and no longer subsisting with just a “glimmering ray.”As the VSL declares “When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things. For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known. And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity
I hope that I am mistaking and alone in my present opinion that some of our Master Masons either do not appreciate or before now ever gave a thought to the purpose and import of a Masonic Funeral. There persists among us, the common practice of attending it as simply one of the social functions in society. Often times our body language during the service indicates our excluding it as part of our Lodge rites for which we were instructed that “as the solemnity of [our] ceremonies requires a serious deportment, [we] are to be particularly attentive to [our] behaviour in our assemblies. [We] are to preserve our ancient usages and established customs sacred and inviolable and induce others by [our] example to hold them in veneration.”
There must be others, but I just recall one Igbo proverb that implies that no one can ever personally mourn his own demise. Consequently, in mourning the dead, one is only mourning himself. I will as an “elder” be modestly specific and declare that such recently arising presumably “good cheer” slogans as ‘hand-bags’ and ‘working-tools?’ should be categorically excluded on trips to a Masonic Funeral. In some mystery schools, even refreshments as food and drinks are limited to the barest minimum after the funeral rites and Freemasonry demands no less a reverence in this its continuing education session on the Sublime Degree.We are not abstaining from transient joy at these moments because we are mourning our departed Brother, or commiserating with his bereaved family. It should be on account of the need to sublimate our sensuous nature and better enable our spiritual parts absorb the lessons taught in the ceremony and its references to the rites of the Sublime Degree we had been initiated into.
I now end this article prematurely, as there are other issues which have not been properly addressed in it, by quoting from “An Epistle To Masonry” by Wor. Bro. William Larson of Portland Lodge No.55 G.L. of A.F.& A.M. of Oregon, “It is helpless to attempt to deal adequately with all the deficiencies in our knowledge of the system which we belong to. The most one can hope to do is to offer a few suggestions or clues directed to those who may desire to develop for themselves a more profound understanding of the intricacies of Masonry, in the confines and privacies of their own thoughts. For in the last resort, no one can communicate the deeper elements of Masonry to another. Every man must discover and learn them for himself, although a friend may be able to conduct him a certain distance on the path of understanding.”
I will restrict my citations to the VSLs common in the District Grand Lodge of Nigeria, Scottish ConstitutionTemples – the Koran and the Bible as well as the Masonic Funeral Handbook approved for use in the District Grand Lodge of Nigeria, (Holden of the grand Lodge of Antient Free and Accepted Masons of Scotland).
[iii] Sura 6:31
Here in Nigeria, the organists usually initiate the hymn “Abide with me” which invokes “Oh He that changeth not…”
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[vii]Sura 56: 60 “We have ordained death among you and We are not to be overcome, That We may change your state and make you grow into what you know not. ALSO 1Co 15:52 “and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed.” 1Co 2:9“Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared for them that love him.”
[viii] Sura: 18:107
Rev 22:12 See also Sura: 3.185 “Every soul shall taste of death, and you shall only be paid fully your reward on the resurrection day; then whoever is removed far away from the fire and is made to enter the garden he indeed has attained the object; and the life of this world is nothing but a provision of vanities.”
One of the major tribes in Nigeria (sometime spelt Ibo)