The Square and the Compass is a symbol which is traditionally associated with the Freemasons and appears on their insignia. It’s also an important part of their teachings. The two elements together form a hexagram which often has the capital letter G inside it to denote God. However, the ones that I found didn’t have this so perhaps it is a regional or international variation. But there is a another interpretation of the motif which may be more appropriate to a funerary emblem and let’s not forget that these are also an architect’s tools of the trade
The Freemason association is the most obvious and common. They’re often seen as quite a secretive and shadowy organisation. ‘It’s all leather aprons and funny handshakes.’ seems to be the opinion of many people. But according the Freemasons UK website they define themselves as’
‘the world’s largest and oldest non-religious, non-political, fraternal and charitable organisations…rooted in the traditions of the medieval stonemasons who built our cathedrals and castles.’
They also claim to ‘make good men better’ by encouraging to live their lives according to the Freemasons Five Values of Integrity, Kindness, Honesty, Fairness and Tolerance.’
They use the Square and Compass in Masonic rituals to teach symbolic lessons. Wikipedia says ‘
‘they have been defined as lessons in conduct as in Duncan’s Masonic Monitor of 1866
in which he defines ‘The square to square our actions and the compass to define boundaries and to circumscribe and keep us within the bounds of mankind.’
There is also a further, somewhat florid definition on the Masonic Lodge of education website which may make for further reading. As they point out, the square is often used in everyday language such as in ‘getting a square deal and, possibly a mason’s comment, ‘squaring off.’ It also appears in earlier texts such as Confucius. However, the square and the compass aren’t exclusive to the Freemasons as they are also used by several other fraternal organisations both in the UK and abroad.
But I prefer the definition of the symbols project in which they point out that both the square and the compass are measuring instruments and so represent judgement and discernment. The compass draws circles which are a symbol of eternity and also infinity. However the square can be viewed as being material and representing ‘fairness, balance, firmness’ and also:
‘something that is stable and a firm foundation to build upon’
They are a union of the material and of the spirit represented by the hexagram that they form. So perhaps this is the spirit leaving the earthly plane and going into eternity i.e. from earth into heaven. It’s certainly another way to look at it.
But who knows? The people who chose to use the Square and the Compass on their tombstone may have been Freemasons or maybe not. There was only one that I felt might have been one because of the quotation above the motif on his cross but this turned out to be a quotation from an 18th century hymn. With the others it was impossible to say.
You don’t see this symbol all that often although I discovered one in Brompton Cemetery and a sprinkling of them in Beckenham Cemetery recently. Interestingly, this is also a cemetery with several Salvation Army burials as well. Here is a gallery of the ones I found within Beckenham Cemetery:
I enjoyed researching this symbol as, although it seemed to be have an obvious association, it was also fascinating to find out other suggestions.
©Text and photos unless otherwise stated Carole Tyrell
Further reading and references:
Long-winded but worth a look