The Graveside Prayer of the Master Mason Degree
The "graveside prayer" used in the Master Mason Degree of Masonry would have been near universally known in the English-speaking world at the time it was incorporated into that Degree, it bearing a remarkable resemblance to a section of the Book of Common Prayer (BPC), a prayer book in universal use in the Church of England.
I may be jaded on the subject, being Anglican, but the Book of Common Prayer is not only a masterful religious piece by not overtly alienating one particular religious faction or another at a time of great religious unrest, it is also a work of prose originating phrases still in common English phraseology to this day.
In the 1662 and most current edition of the BCP, the rubric (or instructions) are the following immediately preceding a burial:
When they come to the Grave, while the Corpse is made ready to be laid into the earth, the Priest shall say, or the Priest and Clerks shall sing
In the Masonic context, almost any adult male—and all people at the time, for that matter—would have completely understood the allusion in the following part of the Master Mason Degree. The graveside prayer found in the BCP is as follows:
Man that is born of a woman hath but a short time to live, and is full of misery. He cometh up, and is cut down, like a flower; he fleeth as it were a shadow, and never continueth in one stay.
In the midst of life we are in death: of whom may we seek for succour, but of thee, O Lord, who for our sins art justly displeased?
Yet, O Lord God most holy, O Lord most mighty, O holy and most merciful Saviour, deliver us not into the bitter pains of eternal death.
Thou knowest, Lord, the secrets of our hearts; shut not thy merciful ears to our prayer; but spare us, Lord most holy, O God most mighty, O holy and merciful Saviour, thou most worthy judge eternal, suffer us not, at our last hour, for any pains of death, to fall from thee.
Taken from Duncan’s Monitor, the following is the “graveside prayer" used most frequently in the Master Mason Degree.
Thou, O God! knowest our down-sitting and our uprising, and understandest our thoughts afar off. Shield and defend us from the evil intentions of our enemies, and support us under the trials and afflictions we are destined to endure, while travelling through this vale of tears. Man that is born of a woman is of few days and full of trouble. He cometh forth as a flower, and is cut down: he fleeth also as a shadow, and continueth not. Seeing his days are determined, the number of his months are with thee; thou hast appointed his bounds that he cannot pass; turn from him that he may rest, till he shall accomplish his day. For there is hope of a tree, if it be cut down, that it will sprout again, and that the tender branch thereof will not cease. But man dieth and wasteth away; yea, man giveth up the ghost, and where is he? As the waters fail from the sea, and the flood decayeth and drieth up, so man lieth down, and riseth not up till the heavens shall be no more. Yet, O Lord! have compassion on the children of thy creation, administer them comfort in time of trouble, and save them with an everlasting salvation. Amen.
Again, the form and much of the imagery used would have been immediately recognizable to almost all English-speaking people at the time. Both the similarities and differences are striking. The overt Christian wording is now omitted as speculative Mason’s now accept membership of any creed—a radical idea in the 17th and 18th centuries.
The main point is made; all die, but there may be a hope of life eternal. It is now said in a familiar, yet nonsectarian way as Masonry moved from operative, where all brothers would have been exclusively Christian, to speculative, where still most, but not all, were Christian. In the Age of Enlightenment, I can only deduce that the framers of this prayer wanted both to retain verbiage that would be familiar with most people while at the same time be accepting to members of non-Christian faiths. As the Fraternity moved from specifically Christian to non-sectarian, its thinking members knew that there would be among its members those who had varying religious thought as the Fraternity leaves decisions on faith to the individual member.
This prayer in Masonry was partially modeled after the prayer found in the Book of Common Prayer for ease of understanding and familiarity to the hearer. Modern readers and hearers should give more thought about reading it through the lens of the Age of Enlightenment in England than a modern, overtly sectarian, or specific creedal lens.
There is much more to be pointed out and discussed about the actual wording of the prayer and as it relates to some Masonic detractors, but that is a subject for another post.