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A Perspective on Death and Dying in the Chivalric Orders of the York Rite of Freemasonry
by Bro. William Steve Burkle KT, 32°
Scioto Lodge No. 6, Chillicothe, Ohio.
Philo Lodge No. 243, South River, New Jersey

The symbol of the Skull and Crossbones, often called the Memento Mori, is a grim reminder of our own mortality. The Latin phrase Memento Mori is generally interpreted as “Remember that you must die”[i], and is often associated with other fatalistic expressions[ii] such as Hora Fugit (The Hour Flees) or Tempus Fugit (Time Flies).  The first Masonic adoption of the Memento Mori appears to have its roots in the York Rite Chivalric Orders, especially the Order of Malta and the Order of the Temple. The establishment of these Orders coincides well with the periods in which the Memento Mori was reaching its zenith as an expression of Christian belief concerning death and dying. This paper will examine the evolution of the Memento Mori, its historic representations of death in the Christian belief system, and its adoption and use by Freemasonry.  The reader is asked to be keenly aware that I am writing this strictly within the context of the Christian tradition; I am of course aware that many Masons are not themselves Christians, and I do this not out of religious conceit, but rather out of a need to narrow the scope of my investigation to that which is manageable in a paper of this type. I respectfully ask that my perspective not be construed as bigoted or intolerant.

Memento Mori in Art and Literature

memento-moriThe skull, the skull and crossbones, and the skeleton were all used extensively in early artwork to symbolize death. One particular representation of the skull in artwork which might be of interest to Freemasons is that found in a tile mosaic from a tabletop which was retrieved from the ashes of Pompei[iii]; this mosaic includes a skull crowned by an ancient plumb-line, illustrating death as the great leveler (Figure 1).

 Of course, not every use of the skull in artwork is related to the symbolism of Memento Mori. The artistic theme of Memento Mori seems to be coincident with the onset of the Black Death in Europe (circa 1348)[iv] in which images of death and references to the certainty of human mortality begin to appear in mainstream as well as funereal artwork. It is during this period and the subsequent period extending well into the late 18th century[v] that an entire genre of tombstone art evolved which came to be known as cadaver tombs. These “double decker” styled tombs were sarcophagi that resembled a stone bunk bed with the deceased shown alive on the top level and in death on the bottom level. The bottom level image usually showed the deceased en transi (decayed) in the grave, complete with worms, rot, skeletal remains, and shroud. Many of these tombs bear inscriptions (epitaphs) which provoke the reader to consider his or her mortality[vi]:

“Come nere my friends, behould and see

Suche as I am suche shall you bee:

As is my state within this tombe

So must be yours before the doome

Even dust as I am now

And thou in time shall be” 

Somewhat related to Funereal art, sculpture work incorporating Momenti Mori symbolism in monuments (other than tombs) was also common. Gian Lorenzo Bernini[vii] was an especially popular Roman sculptor of the 16th and 17th Centuries who created a Memento Mori monument to Pope Urbanus VIII at St. Peters (circa 1640 A.D.) and another for Pope Alexander VII (circa 1678 A.D.)

It is said that the great Michelangelo (1475-1564 A.D.), during the final 20 years of his life had a Memento Mori (a skeleton with a coffin on its back) painted on the stairway of his home[viii]. Non-funereal artwork of the period included paintings such as Et-in-Arcadia-ego (Even in Arcadia, there am I) by the famous Baroque artist Nicholas Poussin (1594–1665 A.D.)[ix]  portraying a tomb (It is the tomb of Daphnis, a shepherd and inventor of pastoral poetry) in the mythic paradise of Arcadia. Caravaggio (circa 1607) in his St. Jerome Writing notably includes a Death Head in his painting. In 1618, Guercino, in Arcadian Shepherds re-expresses the theme of Poussin on canvas using the less subtle image of a skull. In 1625 Pieter Claesz, created Vanitas. By this time the use of the Skull as the prevalent symbol of Memento Mori had become more or less standard.  

            Representations of Memento Mori appear in very early Classical literature. As an example I quote here the words of Sophocles (circa 429 BCE)  in Oedipuis the King[x]:

“Let every man in mankind’s frailty

Consider his last day; and let none

Presume on his good fortune until he find

Life, at his death, a memory without pain.” 

The historian Jean Delumeau[xi] reports references to Memento Mori in a fourteenth-century manuscript of the Catalan poem, Dansa de la Mort: "Toward death we hasten, / Let us sin no more, sin no more".  The Ars Moriendi, or "Art of Dying," is a body of Christian literature developed by the Church which appeared in Europe during the early fifteenth century, and which underwent extensive revision up until the eighteenth century. The Ars Moriendi offered guidance for the dying and those attending to them concerning what to expect, and specified prayers, behaviors, and attitudes that would lead to a "good death" and subsequent salvation. More will be discussed concerning the extremely important Ars Moriendi and its profound influence upon Christian doctrine and belief.

Literary works of a somewhat later period frequently included reference to Memento Mori. For example, William Shakespeare (circa 1598) in Scene 3, Act III of King Henry IV included a line in which Falstaff declares: "I make as good use of it as many a man doth of a Death's-Head or a Memento Mori ". Both The Rules and Exercises of Holy Living, 1650 and The Rules and Exercises of Holy Dying[xii], 1651 by Jerome Thomas are two additional examples of literary works adding to the body of literature incorporating themes of Memento Mori. Hydriotaphia, Urn Burial, or a Discourse of the Sepulchral Urns lately found in Norfolk (1650) is a notable work by Sir Thomas Browne[xiii] with a similar theme.

The Christian Perspective

The Christian basis for the phrase Momenti Mori has often been considered to be from Isaiah 22:13[xiv]: "Eat and drink, for tomorrow we die!”. It is the Author’s view that this passage from Isaiah is more closely aligned with the expressions Carpe Diem (“Seize the Day”) or Nunc Est Bibendum (literally “Now we must drink”)[xv] which were used frequently in classical antiquity, especially during the period preceding 14th Century Christianity to signify the brevity and fragility of life. Both phrases are attributed to the poet Horace (circa 65-8 B.C.) in his various Odes. The phrase Memento Mori developed with the growth of Renaissance Christianity, which emphasized Heaven, Hell, and salvation of the soul in the afterlife. For Christians, thoughts of death were associated with the transience of earthly pleasures, luxuries, possessions, and achievements, which are of no value in the afterlife.  A Biblical reference more closely associated with the concept of Memento Mori is that taken from Ecclesiasticus 7:40: “in all thy works be mindful of thy last end and thou wilt never sin.” This finds ritual expression in the Catholic rites of Ash Wednesday when ashes are placed upon the worshipers' forehead accompanied by the words "Remember Man that you are dust and unto dust you shall return”[xvi].

As discussed, the Black Death had devastated Europe in the period following 1348, and its recurrences along with other diseases continued to claim victims. Wars such as the Hundred Years War between England and France (1337-1453) added to the death toll. These dire conditions coincided with an important theological shift. In the early Middle Ages the Church was primarily concerned with humanity's collective judgment at the end of time; by the fifteenth century however this changed to a focus upon individual judgment immediately after death. One's individual death and judgment thus became an urgent matter which required guidance. The Ars Moriendi figured prominently in this change in theological focus. During the Council of Constance (1414–1418) Jean Gerson, chancellor of the University of Paris, brought to the council an essay entitled De Arte Moriendi. This work became the basis for the Ars Moriendi. From the Council of Constance the Ars Moriendi was rapidly spread by the established networks of the Dominicans and Franciscans.

The evolution of the Ars Moriendi is pivotal to the development of the Memento Mori. As the Ars Moriendi was revised it became a sort of illustrated book of morality and death with individual salvation as its central theme. An English translation of the Ars Moriendi appeared around 1450 re-titled  The Book of the Craft of Dying. According to Comper[xvii], “the first chapter praises the deaths of good Christians and repentant sinners who die "gladly and wilfully" in God”. It suggests that since the best preparation for a good death is a good life, Christians should "live  . . . that they may die safely, every hour” The Ars Moriendi indicates that deathbed repentance can yield salvation. Also per Comper[xviii], the second chapter confronts the dying with five temptations and their corresponding remedies; these include:

(1) temptation against faith versus reaffirmation of faith;

(2) temptation to despair versus hope for forgiveness;

(3) temptation to impatience versus charity and patience;

(4) temptation to vainglory or complacency versus humility and recollection of sins; and

(5) temptation to avarice or attachment to family and property versus detachment.” 

Chapter 2 includes ten illustrations; five of which depict demons tempting the dying man and five others which portray angels offering their inspirations (attempts to remedy or provide spiritual healing). As the reader will clearly recognize, the expansive growth of artwork incorporating images of Momenti Mori which occurred during the period from the 14th through the 18th Centuries are clearly a result of the newly developed Christian theology. I will mention in passing that while the concepts of the Ars Moriendi were originated by the Catholic Church, many of these same concepts were adopted during the reformation by Protestant Churches. Later developments in Protestant doctrine, including the concept of Grace were not however incorporated into the symbolism of Memento Mori which espouses good works as the key to salvation. Thus the symbolism of the Memento Mori came to represent an entire litany of Christian doctrine and belief associated with death and dying.

Adoption by Freemasonry

Albert Mackey[xix] describes the use of the Memento Mori as a Masonic symbol during the late 19th Century in his Enclopedia of Freemasonry as:

“…a symbol of mortality and death. As the means for inciting the mind to the contemplation of the most solemn of subjects, the skull and the crossbones are used in the Chamber of Reflection ..."

Given the extensive Christian history of the Memento Mori it is highly likely that its use and adoption as a Masonic symbol significantly preceded Mackey’s description.  In order to clearly understand the unique relationship between Freemasonry and the Memento Mori, it is important to revisit the history, themes, and Rituals of those two Chivalric Orders which specifically require Christian beliefs and affiliation[xx]. These would of course be the Order of Malta and the Order of the Temple. The phrase Memento Mori is used in the Candidate’s Charge for the Degree of Order of Malta as described by Robert Macoy in his Masonic Manual[xxi] :

“Finally, Sir Knights, as memento mori is deeply engraved on all sublunary enjoyments, let us ever be found in the habiliments of righteousness, traversing the straight path of rectitude, virtue and true holiness, so that having discharged our duty here below, performed the pilgrimage of life, burst the bands of mortality, passed over the Jordan of death, and safely landed on the broad shore of eternity, there, in the presence of myriads of attending angels, we may be greeted as brethren, and received into the extended arms of the Blessed Immanuel, and forever made to participate in his Heavenly kingdom.”

It is this Charge which contains the best insight into the mindset of the authors of the Degree relative to the sentiments of good works and salvation as symbolized by the Memento Mori, which was of course fully consistent with prevailing Christian theology. This Charge is in fact a literary Memento Mori in its own right, using words instead of images to convey the sentiment.

It is useful when examining the parallels between Christian Theology and the Symbolism of both the Order of Malta and the Order of the Temple to consider the content and theme of the Ritual associated with each. I would like to accomplish this by providing snippets of quotations explaining the Degrees taken from the work[xxii] of Bros. Jay Shute and John Walton:

First, regarding the Order of Malta:

The pass degree of the Mediterranean Pass, or Knight of St. Paul prepares the candidate for the Order by introducing the lesson and example of the unfearing and faithful martyr of Christianity.”

And further, regarding the Order of the Temple:

“An Order emphasizing the lessons of self-sacrifice and reverence. It is meant to rekindle the spirit of the medieval Knights Templar devotion and self-sacrifice to Christianity.”

And also:

“… emphasis is placed on the solemnity and reverence associated with the Crucifixion, Resurrection, and Ascension of Christ. … Beautiful lessons of the death and ascension of our Savior are inculcated and the candidate is received into full fellowship, in the most solemn manner.”

From these descriptions of the Orders, the themes of fearless martyrdom, self sacrifice, belief in the resurrection and other Christian concepts are readily apparent. Regarding the specific use of the Memento Mori in Masonry, and in particular within the Ritual of the Order of the Temple, I would quote Richardson’s Monitor of Freemasonry[xxiii] as it refers to the two most memorable (for Templar Brothers) portions of that ritual:

“…Junior Warden leaves the room, and the candidate removes the bandage and discovers in addition to the Bible, bowl of water, etc. a human skull and cross-bones facing him on the table”[xxiv]


“Grand Commander: pilgrim, the fifth libation is taken in a very solemn way. It is emblematical of the bitter cup of death, of which we must all sooner or later taste; and even the savior of the world was not exempted, not withstanding his repeated prayers and supplications. It is taken of pure wine from this cup (Exhibiting a human skull), he pours the wine into it and says, - To show you that we here practice no imposition, I give you this pledge (drinks from the skull); He then pours more wine into the skull and presents it to the Candidate, telling him that the fifth libation is called the sealed obligation, as it is to seal all his former Engagements in Masonry…”

            The impact of the fifth libation upon the candidate binding himself to the Order while contemplating his own mortality is, in my own personal experience, profound indeed. Thus we have the elements which make sense of the adoption by the Chivalric Christian Orders of the Memento Mori as a reminder that to achieve salvation one must live a life of virtue, subduing vanity, and embracing humility and self-sacrifice. I would hasten to add that such a prescription was commonly accepted among Christian Mystics[xxv], including Albertus Magnus (1200–1280); Julian of Norwich (1342-1416); Joan of Arc (1412-1431); Martin Luther (1483–1546); Paracelsus (1493-1541); Giordano Bruno (1548-1600); Jacob Boehm (1575-1624); Thomas Vaughan (1621-1666) aka Eugenius Philalethes; William Blake (1757-1827); and William Wordsworth (1770-1850), to name just a few.  


What does the Memento Mori and its symbolism tell us about the philosophy of Freemasonry concerning death and dying ?  First, let me state that many people, including some Masons, make the erroneous assumption that the third degree of Freemasonry somehow represents death; actually it represents rebirth. This rebirth is spiritual, moral, and intellectual. The story of the death and raising of Hiram is not a Masonic Passion Play, nor does it allude to the resurrection of Christ. In keeping with this the symbol of the Memento Mori does not offer a theological explanation of what occurs after our death. It does tell us that life is temporal and that we should live it with that in mind, and that we should live our lives in a moral fashion. Since the Order of Malta and the Order of the Temple are in every respect Christian Orders, it may be logically extended that Masons of these Orders will have beliefs on death and dying consistent with Christian tradition.

There is no doubt that man, possessing the faculty of self-awareness struggles endlessly with the ontological confrontation of death. As Masons (regardless of our religious tradition), it is good to periodically reflect upon our lives and our beliefs as we each seek come to terms with our own mortality. Memento Mori.


[i] Memento Mori. (2009). In Webster's New World College Dictionary.

[ii] Duclow, Donald F. (2007). Memento mori. In Encyclopedia of Death and Dying. Retrieved April 28, 2009.

[iii] De Caro, Stefano. (2001). Mometo Mori. The National Archaeological Museum of Naples. Soprintendenza Archeologica di Napoli e Caserta. Electa, Napoli, 2001, p. 191.

[iv] The Black Death. (2001). In Eyewitness to History. 1997-2009 Ibis Communications.

[v]  Taylor, Jonathan. (2003). Churchyard Chest Tombs. In Historic Churches Retrieved April 28, 2009 from Building Conservation,

[vi]  Scodel, Joshua. (1991).The English Poetic Epitaph: Commemoration and Conflict from Jonson to Wordsworth. Cornell University Press.

[vii] Piperno, Roberto. (1999-2005). Memento Mori. Abridged History of Rome. Retrieved April 29, 2009

[viii] Valentiner Wilhelm R. (2008) The Late Years of Michelangelo. Pp. 32-33. Osler Press.

[ix]  Kren, Emile & Marx, Daniel. (1996-2009). Biography Poussin, Nicolas.  

[x]   Sophocles’s Memento Mori. Harpers Magazine. November 14, 2007.

[xi]  Delumeau, Jean. (1990) Sin and Fear: The Emergence of a Western Guilt Culture, 13th–18th Centuries, translated by Eric Nicholson. p. 74. New York: St. Martin's Press.

[xii]  Holy Living and Holy Dying. In Absolute Astronomy. Retrieved April 29, 2009

[xiii]  Hydriotaphia, Urn Burial. In Absolute Astronomy. Retrieved April 29, 2009.

[xiv] New American Bible. (1991). Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, Inc. Washington, DC. In Unites States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

[xv]  Memento Mori. Retrieved April 29, 2009 .

[xvi] Memento Mori.(2007). Museum of Art and Archeology, University of Missourri.

[xvii] Comper, Frances M. M. The Book of the Craft of Dying and Other Early English Tracts concerning Death. P. 7. New York: Arno Press, 1977.

[xviii] Ibid. P. 9

[xix] Mackey, Albert G. (1820-1859). Encyclopedia of Freemasonry and it’s Kindred Sciences. P.820. Phoenix Masonry (2009).  

[xx]  History of York Rite Masonry. Phoenixmasonry Masonic Museum. 

[xxi]  Macoy, Robert. (1867). The Masonic Manual: A Pocket Companion for the Initiated. P. 271. Revised Edition. In Internet Lodge.

[xxii] Shute, Jay & Walston, John. (2005). Descriptions of Degrees: The York Rite of Freemasonry Its Appendant Bodies, and Other Allied Masonic Organizations. Dan Pushee (Ed.) In New Bern York Rite Bodies.

[xxiii] Richardson, Jabez. (1860). Richardson’s Monitor of Freemasonry. Pp 115-123. Kessinger Publishing (1942).

[xxiv] Ibid. p. 115.  

[xxv] Szarmach, Paul . Ed. (1984). An Introduction to the Medieval Mystics of Europe. State University of New York Press. Albany.

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