In my mind, I have always associated that verse with the oldest of New England gravestones - the ones covered with imps and hourglasses and scythe-wielding skeletons. It just seems like a Puritan-with-a-capital-P sort of sentiment. Douglas Keister, author of Stories in Stone: A Field Guide to Cemetery Symbolism and Iconography, tells us that this verse, "and its variants are the most common ones found on Colonial New England gravestones" (132). Keister is not alone in this opinion.Remember me as you pass by,As you are now, so once was I,As I am now, so you must be,Prepare for death and follow me.
Yet, I have not been able to find this verse on a 17th- or early-18th-century gravestone anywhere in North America. The oldest American example I can find dates from 1772, but the transcription makes it hard to tell whether the verse appears on a joint stone erected in 1780 or two side-by-side stones erected in 1772 and 1780. A variant lacking the "prepare for death" line can be found on the Elisha Doane gravestone (1759) in Wellfleet, MA (transcription here). The Benjamin Scudder stone in Westfield, New Jersey, sometimes cited as an early example (1708), is actually from 1798 (see editor's note here and Benjamin Scudder's death record here).
How old is the "remember me" verse really? And when/how did it come to America?
An 1850 edition of the New England Historical and Genealogical Register cites the Canterbury tomb of Edward the Black Prince (1330-1376) as the source of the verse. Edward's epitaph was originally written in Norman French, but was at some point translated into English:
Whoso thou be that passeth by;Edward's epitaph, though it contains some of the sentiments found in the later poem, does not exhort the visitor to, "prepare for death and follow me." Variations on the "remember me" verse seem to have been known in 17th-century Scotland: I found one example of a version from Perthshire, Scotland in 1666:
Where these corps entombed lie:
Understand what I shall say,
As at this time speak I may.
Such as thou art, sometime was I,
Such as I am, such shalt thou be.
As. ye. ar. nou(transcription third-hand via Texas Graveyards)
So. onc. vas. Ay
As. Ay. am. so. sal
Ye. be. Remembre
Man. that. thou
I've been puttering around on the internet for days now, and, from what I can tell, that macabre little rhyme was not known in American mortuary culture before 1750. Preliminary research indicates that it became popular in the 1780-1830 period and was used throughout the 19th and into the 20th century. The Federal Writer's project found the verse used in Indiana between 1856 and 1914.
A sample of gravestones with the "remember me" verse: