Our fraternal order has traditionally buried the dead. Even though we don’t do this to the extent we used to, we still conduct funeral ceremonies for our recently departed. I’ve also heard of a lodge somewhere that used to supply pall bearers simply out of respect for a deceased person who may have died alone without relatives. They also supplied pall bearers for families who had no one to call upon.
It takes special people to do this work.
There has been a great change in the ritual for burying our dead in the United States. In the past, it was family, friends, or community members that would deal with the those who died. They helped the person “cross over,” then washed the body, built the coffin, dug and filled the grave, and organized the funeral. Often the body was buried quickly and a funeral was held later.
I recently watched a Netflix show where the sister of a funeral home owner committed suicide. The family was SHOCKED that the other sister who owned the funeral home was embalming her own sister. Yet, this used to be how it was done before the funeral industry took over.
I’ve spent some time looking at the Odd Fellow funeral service of the 1880’s and following are some observations about the funeral service of that period.
The old ceremonial book is entitled Funeral Ceremony To Be Observed At The Burial Of Members of the Independent Order of Odd Fellows Adopted by the Sovereign Grand Lodge. It’s twenty-nine pages, and was entered into The Library of Congress in 1880.
Here’s a link to the book!
The funeral ceremony contains two basic parts: the Public Procession and the ceremony at the grave. The Public Procession is actually a funeral parade, meticulously arranged to parade along streets in front of onlookers to publicly show the Order’s grief at losing one of its own. The ceremony at the grave contains prayers, speeches, and symbolic actions at graveside. It is important to remember the funeral parade could very well start at the house of the deceased. Perhaps a church at times. In those days, there were no funeral parlors as we know them, and sometimes the entire funeral was held in the home.
First, here’s an example of a traditional funeral dirge of the period. Consider listening to this as you continue reading:
This post will focus mainly on the Public Procession, in particular, Form 1 for the Subordinate Lodge. However, I’ll begin by quickly examining the other Forms.
There are 6 separate “Forms” of Public Processions explained in the book. Each Form was a layout of the actual Public Procession which explained where musicians, scene bearers, Noble Grands, members, etc., were supposed to stand in the line of march. Each Form varied depending upon who was participating in the Public Procession.
Form 1, the Form we will examine, was for a Subordinate Lodge only, and was organized strictly to be performed by the local lodge in a community. Form 2, was to be used if the Patriarchal branch was to participate, and both the Patriarchal branch and Subordinate Lodge were incorporated into one procession. Form 3 was used by an Encampment only. Form 4 was used, if the Grand Lodge attended, but the Grand Lodge was to form behind and follow the Subordinate Lodge. Form 5 was for the Grand Encampment, and was to take precedence over other Branches. Form 6 was for the participation of Grand Encampment, Grand Lodge, and Subordinate Lodges of both branches were to participate.
Let’s now discuss Form 1 for the Subordinate Lodge.
Each Form was structured for the public procession to precede the deceased. In each Form the musicians came first, which may have been a brass band, or to a lesser extent, fifes and/or drums. In the 1880’s most communities had some form of local band as many men had been in military bands during the late Confederate War. And there are endless photos online of Odd Fellow’s brass marching bands. The bands played a dirge on the way to the grave. When returning from the grave, a happier tune was usually played, often a jig tune called Merry Men Home from the Grave.
After musicians came the Parade Marshall, the lodge Banner, and then depending upon which branch of the Order, a Guardian or Sentinel with sword drawn. Following the Sentinel or Guardian, we have Scene Supporters and then general membership. Following the membership we have the officers of the lodge. After that, parade positions change depending upon what branch is involved.
The Marshall had to wear a black scarf in mourning. He carried a baton that was also draped in black crape.
Behind the Marshall we have the Outer Guardian with drawn sword, who is the first guard against intruders into the lodge, and here he plays the same role: he comes before the membership, which implies the Music and Marshall are viewed as temporarily separated from the lodge, but also shows the need for symbolic protection of the lodge. The Outer Guardian protects the objective/outer mind of the lodge.
Next come the Scene Supporters. In the 1880’s there is only one time Scene Supporters are used in ritual, and that is during the Initiatory Degree. It is the same today. Remember that in each funeral, the Public Procession precedes the deceased. Symbolically, the use of Scene Supporters, a role only used in Initiation, shows that through death, the deceased Odd Fellow is again being initiated. This time into a higher Order–that of the afterlife. The design of the Public Procession re-enforces the ritual lessons of the Initiatory Degree, illustrating a complete circle of life for the Odd Fellow: from beginning to end to a new beginning “up yonder.” Following the Scene Supporters are the members of the Initiatory Degree, again re-enforcing the notion of the funeral being a new initiation for the deceased.
Behind the Scene Supporters are members of the older nineteenth century degrees in order: Initiatory, White, Pink, Royal Blue, Green, and Scarlet all followed by the Past Grands. These members were to either walk in a column of twos or fours. Both of these formations were based upon military drill of the time period. The column of fours may have been the most popular formation at the time. The column of fours is typically the formation used during the U.S. Civil War for a regimental road march. Each file of fours was called “comrades in arms,” and were your “mess buddies.”
Here is an old video that shows how some of this stuff was done. I haven’t really studied it yet. Filmed in Sarnia, Ontario.
Next in line comes the Inside Guardian, with drawn sword, ahead of the lodge officers. The Inner Guard is functioning as protector of the inner lodge, the officers, the keepers of the wisdom of the lodge, if you will. Or more symbolically, the inner/ subconscious mind of the lodge.
In some cases, regular lodge regalia was worn publicly by all officers of the lodge, i.e. robes and other ceremonials. Mostly, what I find is that members and officers simply wore the best suit of clothes they had, complete with a hat.
The non officers pinned a black rosette to the left breast, and a strip of black crape tied with the color of the highest degree held by the wearer and looped through the button hole of the left jacket lapel. There was no mention of wearing collars by membership. Members were allowed to wear any Odd Fellow medals or pins they may have.
In other Forms, the Outside Guardian carried a red wand bound with black crape and the Inside Guardian carried the insignia and rank of the deceased brother. The Scene Supporters carried white wands bound with black crape. The Chaplain wore a white scarf, and the Warden bore the axe, bound with black crape. Other officers, again depending on the Form, will carry either emblems of their office or wands of office which would be bound with black crape.
The Warden, carrying his axe in a public funeral, may seem insensitive to people today and those of the time period. However, we must remember that in those days, the ax was carried around the lodge by the Warden and money was placed upon it to help the needy.
Since one of the Order’s specific commandments is “bury the dead,” when it came to that duty, the Order pulled out all the stops. They made it as meaningful and beautiful as they possibly could, even if the lodge was small and poor, they strove to make as good an impression as possible.
Down the road, I hope to take time to review the actual ceremony at the graveside.
Scott Moye is an award-winning history educator and collector of Arkansas folklore. He grew up on a cotton farm and is currently a museum worker. Hobbies include: old house restoration, writing, amateur radio, Irish traditional music, archery, craft beer, old spooky movies, and street performance. He is a member of Marshall Lodge #1, in Marshall, Arkansas, and a founder of Heart In Hand Blog.