Many times when a Master Mason passes away, he has told his family and/or his brethren that he wishes to have a Masonic memorial service.
When this happens, his lodge is honored to perform such a service. As many brethren who can make it will meet at the lodge an hour or two ahead of the deceased brother's schedule funeral, and open a Lodge of Sorrow.
The ritual of opening the Lodge of Sorrow differs from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, but usually consists of an abbreviated regular opening followed by solemn recitations about life and death.
Some lodges (in Georgia, at least) will open a Lodge of Sorrow once, or once a year, and leave it open for the year, or indefinitely, to make it easier. Personally, I think a Lodge of Sorrow should be opened and closed for each deceased brother, to show respect for each individual.
After the Lodge of Sorrow is opened, the brethren will travel to the place of the funeral, and await the arrival of the brother's body outside the building. As his family and his casket enter the building, the brothers stand at attention, while two Masons, standing opposite each other, at each end of line cope the procession by raising and joining together staffs, forming a triangle over the heads of the mourners, symbolizing the canopy of Heaven.
The Masons will then sit together in the chapel, usually at the rear. At the conclusion of the funeral service, the Masons leave first, and again form a line on each side of the procession, again coping the family and casket as they pass by.
At graveside, the service is usually all Masonic, with the presiding Master reciting beautiful words of solice and hope for life everlasting, ending with the symbolic laying of white gloves and a white Masonic apron upon the casket.
The brothers circumnavigate the casket, and at the appropriate time, each one removes the sprig of acacia that has adorned his lapels and put it atop the casket.
It's a beautiful, meaningful and moving ceremony.
After speaking with the assembled mourners, many of the Masons return to the lodge to close the Lodge of Sorrow, again with suitable ceremony.
Recently in Jackson County, Florida (on the border with Georgia and Alabama), Harmony Lodge No. 3 did something a little different. They invited the family and the public to attend the Lodge of Sorrow ceremony.
Last January, sheriff's deputy Mike Altman, who had been a Master Mason less than a year, was killed in the line of duty.
Because of the large number of people who attended his funeral, the Masonic lodge had given up their places in the church and at the graveside, and until last week, had not given Masonic honors to their departed brother.
On Monday, they opened a Lodge of Sorrow with family, friends and law enforcement co-workers of Bro. Altman in attendance. An article in the Jackson County Floridian by Deborah Buckhalter gives a wonderful description of what went on, spelling out not only the facts but great descriptions of the meanings behind the ceremony.
I've attended several Masonic funerals in the past several years. Most times it was the funerals of brothers I barely, if at all, knew. Each time I participated in the ritual I was moved by the poignancy of the lecture given at the graveside, and by the symbolic actions we performed.
For many years, W. Bro. Roy Collis opened and closed the lodge, and performed the Master's duties at graveside for our lodge. Even as he approached 90 years old, Bro. Roy was sharp as a tack and impeccable in his delivery. Bro. Roy no longer presides over Masonic funeral traditions; in the past year his health has deteriorated to where he is unable to even attend lodge. He'll be 92 at the end of September.
The one time I participated in the Masonic services for a brother I knew very well, we were stymied by his church's minister. Bro. Bob Webster and I attended the same local Presbyterian church. The church's long-time minister, Pastor Dave, had just left the church to move to another city. Pastor Dave was a great guy; I knew him well. He'd presided over the non-Masonic funeral of a brother who had died a few years earlier; ironically, Bro. Bob and I had been two of the four men from our lodge who had gone to that brother's funeral.
The new minister at the church didn't like Masons. He would not allow us to follow our tradition and perform the honors after the regular funeral service. Bro. Bob had been cremated, and his ashes were to be scattered in a memorial park area on the church premises.
Traditionally, all the mourners would have joined us in the park while we performed our rituals. The minister saw to it that we did it ahead of time, by ourselves, with only Bro. Bob's immediate family present. I found it very unchristian of the minister, who was so new to the church that he didn't really know Bro. Bob, to impose his will and insecurities about Masonry on the family like that. Bro. Bob's ashes were scattered in the park even before his regular funeral service was held. It was very awkward for all involved, simply due to the new pastor's anti-Masonic stance. Had it not been for the fact that the funeral director, Bro. Roper, was a Mason, I don't think the minister would have allowed us to conduct our services at all.
Some Masonic purists would argue that Masonic funeral ceremonies should not be performed for brethren who are cremated. I've heard that more than once, usually by someone who takes the fundamentalist "resurrection of the body" dogma literally.
Another time, we conducted our memorial services indoors, at the end of the regular funeral service. It was a cold, rainy January afternoon, and the burial plot was just outside the church, so we performed the honors indoors, arranging ourselves around the casket in the front of a very small country church.
If you are a Mason, try to take the time to attend funerals of your brothers, whether you knew them or not. Familiarize yourself with the ritual, so you know what is expected of you.
If you're not a Mason and have never seen a Masonic funeral ritual, make it a point to do so. You'll be awed by the service's meaning, symbolism and grandeur.
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