Field Guide


WE are a nation of joiners. Sooner or later we'll form a club or start a competition and appoint leaders. In the cemetery, by far the most represented society is the Freemasons.

The primary symbol of the Freemasons is the square and compass. Sometimes the symbol also contains clasped hands. The square and compass represent the interaction between mind and matter and refer to the progression from the material to the intellectual to the spiritual. The Freemasons have a gift for clouding the origins of their organization, but historians say the roots of Freemasonry were among the stonemasons who built the great cathedrals in Europe. Since they went from job to job and were essentially self-employed, they were free masons. When they worked on a large job they banded together to form lodges. The Masons have grown to become the largest fraternal organization in the world. They are noted for their wide use of symbols and handshakes.

Besides the square and compass, also be on the lookout for other Masonic symbols such as the all-seeing eye, often with rays of light, which is an ancient symbol of God. Although many cultures have eye symbols, some good and some evil, when seen in a cemetery it usually means that the person was Mason. This symbol is familiar to us as one of the mysterious images on the reverse of the dollar bill. Its placement on the dollar bill is largely the result of America's founding fathers, among them George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, Paul Revere, and John Paul Jones, who were Masons. In fact, one scholar describes Washington's Continental Army as a "Masonic convention".

Taken from Stories in Stone: A Field Guide to Cemetery Symbolism and Iconography written and photographed by Douglas Keister, published by Gibbs Smith, Salt Lake City, 2004.