The handshake, two people stretching out their right hand and grasping that of the other, has been accepted as a welcome, as a sign of trust, for centuries. Originally designed amongst men armed with swords to show that neither party was about to reach for his weapon and strike or attack the other, it has evolved through the ages to become a symbol of acceptance and agreement amongst business partners, or a way of wishing someone well when parting company. In the early days of banking in London, when much relied on trust amongst men doing business, it signified the closing of a contract, an agreement to meet certain terms or to comply with a mutually agreeable deal. The agreement amongst honorable gentleman, the shaking of hands, was considered as binding a contract as any signature placed upon paper today.
For many smaller groups of people, including the Freemasons, the handshake has a far greater significance. The Freemasons use a handshake as a sign of recognition, as a method of identifying one another and, with certain movements of fingers and hand, of placing a specific grade to their position in the society. Freemasons use a form of the everyday handshake to show who is an Entered Apprentice, the lowest Masonic grade in the Blue Lodges, who is a Fellow Craft and who has attained the rank of Master Mason.
From the official beginning of the Freemasons, in 1717 when four London Lodges joined to form the first Grand Lodge, the handshake has been used with other signs or tokens as an act of recognition, as a display of trust and as a hard and fast sign of friendship. The simple act of pressing hands together has been modified with pressure of the thumb on one or other of the finger joints, following a set formula according to grade, to identify. This so-called secret sign of membership in the Freemasons is, however, reasonably well known since many illustrated works of reference have been published during the last nearly three hundred years detailing exactly what each movement means and who it applies to, and has been modified with additional signs and tokens – such as a series of questions and answers, over the years. Despite its lack of secrecy, the handshake remains popular, a hard and fast component of a series of differing signs that one is a member in Good Standing, an Honorable Man, a man who can be trusted.
For Freemasons, the handshake has a far greater significance, though. It is also used to signify a deep and lasting bond of friendship amongst members of the group, the forming of a chain of men, each holding the hand of their neighboring partner, joined in far more than just the physical sense. The separating of hands, coupled with a symbolic pressing of the fingers together three times, shows that, while the chain of hands may be broken and every one will go their own way, the chain linking their hearts, their common aims in life, their ideals, can never be broken. It is this final handshake, the final breaking of hands before parting which has, when the time comes, the most memorable effect on outsiders. That time, which comes to us all, is the moment when Freemasons bid one of their number farewell, accompany him on the first steps of his final journey into the East and part with his mortal form forever during a funeral ceremony.