(Originally Published in the March 2012 Edition of Living Stone's Magazine)
This piece will explore Dr. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’ five stages of death (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance), in order to explore how the Masonic system prepares us for our current physical and spiritual state of existence, while simultaneously preparing us for whatever awaits us after we shed our mortal coil.
Death and resurrection, “your last great change- your transition from Time to Eternity”, are prominent themes in the Masonic system. On the physical and material level, the Masonic system provides valuable lessons and tools to each brother so that he can live a full life, as well as prepare him for the inevitable death of his physical body. In the Entered Apprentice degree because your old self must begin to wither away and die so that you can leave the world of darkness and ignorance in order to pursue the path of light and knowledge. The spiritual world, where we each go after death, is present in the Fellowcraft degree because the brother must leave the material realm in order to undertake intellectual, philosophical and spiritual pursuits during the staircase lecture, only to once again re-enter the material world in order to apply that knowledge for further work and refinement. Finally, both physical and spiritual death and resurrection take center stage in the Master Mason degree, where the Master must complete his spiritual transformation by dying in the material realm, so that he may be resurrected in the spiritual realm.
The first stage of death in Kübler-Ross’ model is “Denial”, during this stage the person does not want to admit that they are dying, so they tend to try and will themselves back to good health. This sense of denial could come from the fact that many people don’t ever think about death until they actually have to confront it. So when someone finds out that they are terminally ill, this might be the first time that they have been confronted with the reality of their own mortality. Part of this uneasiness and fear about death could be caused by the fact that many of us wrap ourselves up into our occupations and material possessions to such an extent that these things become our identity, they become our earthly treasures. When we spend all of our time focusing on our earthly treasures, we neglect our spiritual treasures, and therefore tend to avoid thinking about the fact that our earthly treasures will be useless to us when we die.
Just as we first entered the Lodge poor and destitute as an Entered Apprentice, we will leave this world poor and destitute, without any material possessions. According to the Gospel of Luke Jesus taught, “Sell your possessions and give to the poor. Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven that will never fail, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys”. By gaining an understanding of our mortality, and using the working tools provided in the degrees, we can focus on living a full and productive life, as well as develop our spiritual treasure in heaven.
The second stage of the Kubler-Ross model is that of “Anger”. The person who knows that he is about to die becomes angry at himself, his current situation, those around him, and sometimes the entire world. This anger could often be the result of his own feelings of a wasted or unfulfilled life, or a feeling that his life has been too short. According to Bro. Albert Pike, “We think, at the age of twenty, that life is much too long for that which we have to learn and do; and that there is an almost fabulous distance between our age and that of our grandfather. But when, at the age of sixty, if we are fortunate enough to reach it, or unfortunate enough, as the case may be, and according as we have profitably invested or wasted our time, we halt, and look back along the way we have come, and cast up and endeavor to balance our accounts with time and opportunity, we find that we have made life much too short, and thrown away a huge portion of our time.” The key to not looking back at our life and being remorseful, is to live our life to the fullest, which includes spending time with friends and family, as well devoting time to earnest study and reflection. The working tools of an Entered Apprentice allow us to make the most of our life by “divesting our minds and consciences of the vices and superfluities of life”, as well as teaching us to correctly divide our time.
The third stage of the Kubler-Ross model is that of “Bargaining”. During the bargaining stage the individual may try to bargain with God to extend his life somehow by doing good deeds, reforming his life, or helping others. This could be the result of either a selfish desire to continue living, or a fear of what happens after death. The well prepared Mason, like our Grand Master, will not need to bargain for the extension of his life, because he will have already lived a full life, helped others, and become comfortable with the journey that he will take after his physical death. The working tools of the Fellowcraft degree assist us in living a moral, just, and fulfilled life, no matter how brief, by instructing us to live and act virtuously, morally, and uprightly in our interactions with God and man, as well as reminding us that we are each constantly, “traveling upon the Level of Time, to that undiscovered country, from whose bourne no traveler returns."
The Fourth stage of the Kubler-Ross model is that of “Depression”. After the person realizes that they are going to die and that they cannot extend their life, or somehow bargain their way out of death, they become depressed. This can be caused by their belief that they are abandoning loved ones and friends, or that loved ones and friends have abandoned them. The Master Mason’s use of the trowel, which spreads the “cement of brotherly love and affection”, can ease this stage during physical death because his brothers will not only support him during his transition, but he has the assurance that his brothers will be there to support his family after his passing. On the Spiritual level, the brother can use the bonds (the mystic ties) created by the trowel in order to learn spiritual Truths from his brothers, as well as share his own wisdom, which will not only help his current spiritual development, but will continue to help others after his passing.
The Fifth and final stage of the Kubler-Ross Model is that of “Acceptance”. During the acceptance stage the dying person will have come to accept their fate. The acceptance stage is the most critical stage because it allows the person to die peacefully. If the person does not come to the stage of acceptance before their death, the process of death might be harder not only on themselves, but the loved ones who will be by their side. Again, reaching the stage of acceptance is much easier if the brother has already spent time contemplating this inevitable moment, lived life as fully as possible, and is comfortable that his spiritual house is in order. Brother Ben Franklin conveyed this well when he wrote his own epitaph, although it was never used, “The Body of B. Franklin, Printer, Like the Cover of an Old Book, Its Contents Torn Out and Stripped of Its Lettering and Gilding, Lies Here, Food for Worms, But the Work Shall Not be Lost, For it Will as He Believed, Appear Once More In a New and More Elegant Edition Revised and Corrected By the Author”.
The Kübler-Ross model can also be applied to the drama of the Master Mason Degree, which instead of being interpreted as the physical death of our Grand Master, can be interpreted as the completion of the spiritual transformation that we each began to undertake as an Entered Apprentice. When viewed in this light, the actions of the three ruffians represent the last vestiges of our old self desperately clinging for control. The denial and anger stages are represented by the ruffians as they commit their acts out of anger and frustration, because they cannot be a part of the Master’s transformation, because they are the final rough edges that must be cleaved from the Master’s ashlar. As the Master’s transformation becomes more eminent, the ruffians enter into the bargaining stage as they try to bargain and even threaten our Master in an attempt to gain that which they seek. However, their attempts are useless because the Master does not fear death, and if need be he is even prepared to embrace death. After their deeds have been committed, the ruffians know that the final stages of transformation have begun, so they flee and enter into the depression stage, hence the recital of their lamentations, which leads to their capture. Finally, when brought before King Solomon, they enter into the acceptance stage, and receive punishment for their crimes. After the three ruffians (the remnants of the old self) are permanently dealt with, the Master can be resurrected in his new form, thus completing the spiritual transformation.
Almost every religion teaches that the soul will be resurrected either in a spiritual realm, of one form or another, or reincarnated into another form after the death of the physical body. Death is also present in our spiritual transformation, because parts of our old self (our old psyche) must die so that we can continually resurrect ourselves into higher states of consciousness (awareness). Since death always has a resurrection aspect associated with it, it is not an end, it is a beginning. Death is merely a transformation from one state into another. The beauty of the Masonic system is that it provides teachings and support that will aid the brother during physical and spiritual deaths, as well as the brother’s subsequent resurrections, so that the brother will continually evolve as a living stone, and even a spiritual stone, until his work is ultimately completed. This is accomplished because the Masonic system provides spiritual Truths that aid the brother in this current material realm, as well as in the spiritual realm, where all resurrections ultimately take place.
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 Luke 12:33, NIV