Wednesday, February 24, 2010

"Remember Me As You Pass By"

Most people who are familiar with old American gravestones know the old verse,
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.
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.

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;
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.
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:
As. ye. ar. nou
So. onc. vas. Ay
As. Ay. am. so. sal
Ye. be. Remembre
Man. that. thou
Mist. dei.
(transcription third-hand via Texas Graveyards)

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:
Does anyone have an example of a pre-1750 version of this poem in America? I'm not asking that snarkily - I am really interested in finding the earliest possible examples and will keep looking. At the moment, I am leaning toward thinking that this verse is NOT a Puritan-American favorite, but rather a gothic/medieval revival favorite.

40 comments:

Anna said...

(Delurking to say:) Hmm. I am positive I can find one, but don't have any in my computerized records. I have a handful of 1760s examples in Amherst, NH, where the graves don't date back much further.

If it weren't snow/raining for the next week, I would get myself to Old Burial Ground or the Granary right away! Interesting. The challenge is on.

Bob said...

I've never found the origin of that particular verse either, though I did do a casual search at one point. I'd bet a dollar it derives ultimately from a Greek or Roman source. It's an example of the "contrastive theme" that Lattimore describes in his 1962 study of ancient epitaphs ("I used to be great, now I'm small..."; Ozymandias is a modern rendering), although our particular formula doesn't appear among his examples.

In my irregular notes I find four pre-Revolutionary examples:

West Springfield, 1758 (fide Bridgman, 1850)

South Hadley, 1767, 1775 (fide Lie, 1976)

Dunstable 1774 (fide Nason, 1877)

Dedham, 1773 (fide Slafter, 1888)

It's also the case that verses in general don't become common on New England stones until into the 1700s. There certainly are many early examples, but I think the percentage of 17th century stones with verses is relatively small in comparison with, say, stones from the late 1700s. But I think your sense that this verse isn't especially "Puritan" is probably correct, in the same way that many things people popularly call "Puritan" today are really Victorian.

—RJO

Bob said...

This contains a reported example from 1732 in Orange, NJ:

http://www.archive.org/stream/narrativesofnewa01pier/narrativesofnewa01pier_djvu.txt

(search the page for "follow me")

—RJO

Caitlin GD Hopkins said...

It's so nice to have informed, helpful commenters!

You're definitely right that the 17th-century stones have very few verses. That's what I was looking into when I came across this unexpected evidence — I was trying to see if there is any correspondence between what is written on gravestones and what is written in printed elegies (answer: rarely).

I'm still working on this, but it looks like most of the non-vital inscriptions are one-liners like "The memory of the just is blessed" or "fugit hora." There are a few longer verses (like the Ovid), but not many.

Thanks for the New Jersey reference. I looked up Matthew Williams (b. 1656, d. 1732) — he was born in Wethersfield, CT. Perhaps he's our first real pre-Great Awakening Puritan to use this verse. Though, he did leave CT and his name is Matthew, which is incredibly unusual for a Puritan, so maybe not. More digging required.

Charles Bahne said...

There are at least a couple of examples at Copps Hill in Boston. In my book "The Complete Guide to Boston's Freedom Trail" I quote from the stone for Thomas Williston, "who exchanged this Life for a better" in 1775, age 75: "Stop here my friend & cast an Eye, As you are now, so once was I, As I am now, so you must be, Prepare for Death, and follow Me." Sorry, I don't know the dates or names of the other examples.

Bob said...

A 1764 example from Harvard:

http://books.google.com/books?id=CpQvAAAAYAAJ&pg=PA487&img=1&zoom=3&hl=en&sig=ACfU3U3e5VbEvj2-hw8_7tHpU_fCVxv5hg&ci=36%2C1288%2C841%2C120&edge=0

—RJO

Lori Stokes said...

I'll jump in vaguely to say I'm pretty sure there are examples at the OBG in Arlington. I'll look through my records.

Bob said...

Here's a reported variant from Scotland in 1638:

http://books.google.com/books?id=_KQHAAAAQAAJ&pg=PA79&img=1&zoom=3&hl=en&sig=ACfU3U0UggKfm-B3r9vkWy0JdFh2OpzIQA&ci=85%2C120%2C897%2C412&edge=0

A reported variant from Shropshire in 1580 (search the page for "so once was I"):

http://www.archive.org/stream/notesqueries10londuoft/notesqueries10londuoft_djvu.txt

And here is an apparently early variant that is said to have been inscribed at the entrance of a burying ground in Edinburgh, although the date is not clear:

http://books.google.com/books?id=haQ-AAAAYAAJ&pg=PA191&img=1&zoom=3&hl=en&sig=ACfU3U0MMIEwD176op__vqu2aMVbRiP7ew&ci=110%2C192%2C682%2C215&edge=0


—RJO

Heather Rojo said...

a video of Londonderry, NH, with a walk through the 1793 Valley Cemetery- the narrator stops to read one of the stones which is the verse you are looking for

http://www.archive.org/details/AlBrennerLTownltownaviavi

Jim Blachowicz said...

See the stone for Capt. John Fisher (1736) in Needham cemetery on "Find-a-grave" at http://www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=pv&GRid=27611695&PIpi=11321624
It's apparent the stone is as old as its date. It's the earliest I've seen.

gallimaufry said...

Great information — Thanks for researching and sharing this!

The inscription on the gravestone of my 7G grandfather has the "prepare for death and follow me" line and is a little earlier than the 1772 or later inscription you cited:

The inscription on his gravestone reads:

Ensign
Matthew
Noble
Was born
Sept. 9, 1698
& died
Aug. 8, 1771.

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
& follow me.

I haven't yet had the chance to see this stone myself; my information comes from:

Boltwood, Lucius M. (1878) History and genealogy of the family of Thomas Noble of Westfield, Massachusetts: with genealogical notes of other families by the name of Noble. Hartford, CT: Press of the Case, Lockwood & Brainard Company. 870 pp.

e782e4ea-37b1-11e0-9931-000bcdca4d7a said...

Not sure but I believe this is on the stone of a grave at the Phipps Street Burial Grounds in Charelstown, MA as well.

Lisa McKenna said...

I have the tombstone rubbing, which I acquired in 1975, from the artist who did the rubbing. This tombstone is from the Granary Burial Ground and is no longer intact with the words. They have now put another tombstone in with just his name and date of death. The tombstone reads (or used to):

Here lies Buried
the body of
Cap. John Decoster
who died Jany 28th
1773. Aged 26. years
Stop here my Friend & Cast an Eye
as you are now so Once was I
as I am now so you must be
Prepare for Death & Follow me.

I have tried to write as it was written. Very interesting topic.

Anonymous said...

I'm a funeral director in the UK and this 'ditty' has been around for a few years now and surfaces once in a while. Told to me years ago as a 'joke' there was a retort with reference to heaven or hell:

Remember friend when passing by,
As you are now, so once was I.
As I am now so you shall be,
So be prepared to follow me!

Retort:
To follow you I’m not content,
Until I know which way you went!

Terry Shoobridge

Heather Rojo said...

posted one yesterday at this link, but its from 1785.
http://nutfieldgenealogy.blogspot.com/2011/03/michael-stratford-dealton-tombstone.html

kathiryn said...

I can attest there is a gravestone located in Hudsonville, Michigan, with the inscription similar to the Gallimaufry inscription. I believe the gravestone was dated with a mid 1700's death. It left an indeliable impression on me as I stumbled upon it while at a party in high school in the dark woods of a classmate. Eerie! The poem has never left my memory.

GavinCDC said...

Message to Bob
—RJO February 24, 2010 8:43 PM
I have always believed this originally came from A P Herbert, a well known English humorist, novelist and playwright. As far as I have managed to research on the internet, I cannot find any further reference to support this. It might however give you something to go on.

Gavin CDC

Trish said...

I first heard of the verse while a senior in high school (1956). Loved it then, when read by my English teacher, Mrs McMartin, as I do now. The retort concerning which way you went is as precious.
Intend to use it some day on the stones of my husband and I and hope it remains in the hearts of all my family.

MsGenealogist said...

I have a copy of Stones, the Betty Willsher and Doreen Hunter book quoted on the Texas Graveyards page you link to above. Just thought you might like futher details, as the TG authors have excerpted only a portion of the 1666 Perthshire epitaph (it's from a slab at Logierait):

COME.AL.AND.SE
AS.YOU.GO.BY.EN
HONRED.CORPS
HIR.NOU.DO.LY
AS.YE.AR.NOU
SO.ONC.VAS.AY
AS.AY.AM.SO.SAL
YE.BE.REMEMBRE
MAN.THAT.THOV.
MOST.DEI.

Willsher and Hunter present it as above in full caps, and with that slight spelling change in the final line. Just FWIW. It's a great book.

Corrina said...

There is the same epitath on a headstone in Towanda, Kansas. Although I moved from there many years ago, that hauntingly beautiful memorial has always stuck with me.

Anonymous said...

There will be another stone with this inscription in Stone Church Cemetery, Ringgold, Ga. around May 2012. I just purchased it for myself and added this verse on the back of the stone. I got it from a stone in an old North Georgia cemetery several years ago. Passers by may not know or remember my name, but they will remember the verse; hopefully they will take it to heart.

Michael Cifello said...

I found one in Plympton MA off of Rt 58, near the town common I did an etching of it when I was in High School 1975, its probably in the 1800's maybe earlier, I'll have to stop by and find it to get a better date..and name..2/28/2012
M. Cifello

Anonymous said...

So glad to find this article! My family grave yard in Van Texas has a tombstone from the mid 1800s this epitaph. I have told my family that this what I want hopefully not for a long time! Thanks for all the stories!

Valicia VanHoose

Anonymous said...

So glad to find this article! My family grave yard in Van Texas has a tombstone from the mid 1800s this epitaph. I have told my family that this what I want hopefully not for a long time! Thanks for all the stories!

Valicia VanHoose

clickityclunk said...

This verse has been bothering me for a while also, I remember going to a cemetery in monroe maryland of a girl that had passed away. I don't remember much about it except that it had an image of her painted on a piece of ivory imbedded in the headstone. It read "Hattie" or "hitty"

Anonymous said...

I read this "poem" when a cousin and I found it on a stone in an old grave yard in Buffalo, WV. It is across a creek from the town park there. We were uncovering stones and found this one under a few inches of dirt. It had a hand and a rose engraved with the poem and no name. Black slate or marble was what the stone was carved from. I have been haunted by these words since because our good friend died the day we found this stone. Remember youth as you pass by, as you are now, so once was I. As I am now, and you must be, prepare for death and follow me.......Chris 785-829-0079

Anonymous said...

I read this "poem" when a cousin and I found it on a stone in an old grave yard in Buffalo, WV. It is across a creek from the town park there. We were uncovering stones and found this one under a few inches of dirt. It had a hand and a rose engraved with the poem and no name. Black slate or marble was what the stone was carved from. I have been haunted by these words since because our good friend died the day we found this stone. Remember youth as you pass by, as you are now, so once was I. As I am now, and you must be, prepare for death and follow me.......Chris 785-829-0079

Paul said...

Clearly very late to the party, but as a long-time lurker I wanted to bring to your attention a purported 1725 William Dare stone in Newfoundland containing the verse, as reported here:

http://www.stonepics.com/newfoundland_cemeteries/oldstone.htm

The claimed inscription is
"Here lieth the body of William DARE who departed this life August the 23, in 1725 & aged about 45 years. As I am now so must you be; Therefore prepare to follow me; As you are now, so once was I; Therefore prepare yourself to die."

burnley blogs said...

recently cleaned monument in Bowmanton Pioneer Cemetery, Alnwick/Haldimand twsp. Ontario, Canada
Philemon Ferguson
died dec 25, 1855 age 81
My glass is run, my grave you see.
Prepare in time to follow me.
So friends go home, shed no more tears.
For here I lie till Christ appears.

Natalie said...

I saw this exact poem today on a gravestone in Nisky HIll Cemetery in Bethlehem, Pa. The 22 year old man was named Frank, and I believe his date of death was 1865. This cemetery has eighteenth century graves as well. I will keep an eye out for this poem on older gravestones.

Anonymous said...

This was the name of a chapter in one of my father's books, he also studied head stones. I never knew where it came from but much to my delight while visiting Our Lady of the Conception of the Capuchins in Rome I saw this on a plaque in among the bones. This crypt was built in about 1660, I don't recall the wording, clearly it was not in english, but it was as close as can be wile still being another language. I have been curious since seeing this to know where it originated and if we will ever know.

Llucchin said...

I am in Art History class and this "Remember Me As You Pass By" is MUCH MUCH older than you think. It is a very ancient Latin Phrase and it became very popular to carve the saying in gravestones during the 14th and 15th century. You can see one example of this in the art fresco "The Holy Trinity" by Masaccio in Italy 1425. Here it is in Latin: Quod tu es, ego fui, quod ego sum (What you are, I once was; what I am now, you will be.) I got more info if anyone needs it. -JJ

Anonymous said...

http://www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=gr&GSln=grubb&GSfn=john&GSbyrel=all&GSdyrel=all&GSst=37&GScnty=2076&GScntry=4&GSob=n&GRid=40301507&df=all&

Xandra Graham said...

Wow! It truly is amazing how fantastic the Internet has become for nostalgia and reminiscing about things of the past. I just had a conversation with a few people at work about local urban legends and I told the story of the Witch's Ball at Myrtle Hill Cemetery in Valley City, OH (do a google search for it).

I also told them of a gravestone epitaph me and a buddy of mine discovered while investigating the urban legend as teens. The epitaph reads (preserving the accuracy of the gravestone with punctuation, capitalization, and layout):

In memory of,
Weed Ford, son of
Paul & Mary Ford,
he died Sept., 23d,
1821. In the 20th year
of his age.
Stop traveller, stop as you pass by,
As you are now, so once was I,
As I am now, soon you must be,
Prepare for Death, and follow me.

I have a great photo of this gravestone which I will post a link to soon.

As you might imagine, my fellow co-workers were a little freaked out. This prompted me to do a search on the Internet for the origin of this poem.

It is obvious this poem has haunted me and stuck with me all these years. I would like to do further research at the Historical Society about this family because of the interesting given name and epitaph. I will post back if I find anything of interest. Good luck in your research!

Xandra Graham said...

Here's the the link to my previous post:

http://www.flickr.com/photos/94654873@N07/8618962461/

Victoria Livo said...

I too have read the same poem but here in Australia! In the whroo cemetery near the small town of Rushworth in the state of Victoria, there is a tiny cemetery with graves from the 1800+ One large tomb stone has the following:

Remember me as you pass by,
As you are now, So once was I.
As I am now, So you must be,
Prepare yourself to follow me.

It's haunting and true and it made an impression I've never forgotten it.

Caitlin GD Hopkins said...

"I am in Art History class and this "Remember Me As You Pass By" is MUCH MUCH older than you think."

Right, but the question here is whether it was actually used in 17th-century New England. In the gravestone literature, this poem is often cited as a "common" or even "the most common" epitaph used by the New England Puritans. It sounds so nice and grimly Puritan-ish, after all. But, in fact, it is vanishingly rare in America before the 1750s, well after the peak of the Puritan movement. It seems to be connected to a medieval revival rather than to Puritans, but our stereotypes about Puritans have distorted the actual chronology of its use.

halfdreaming said...

Nothing new to add really, my example is from the early 1800s, I believe. My father is big into genealogy so on any family vacation there is inevitably at least one cemetery stop, frequently at some very small, sketchy looking graveyards (breaking in or hopping the fence is not unusual, much to my mother's chagrin).
This particular cemetery visit took place when I was 8 or 9. It was an old church yard, still with a church attached, although I doubt it was still functioning as a church. I believe it was Methodist, white frame church, somewhere in either Appalachia or SW Missouri. As far as I can remember it was in Tenn. or NC, but it's been many years, an a lot of graveyards.

The stone would have been from the 19th century, not sure of anything more detailed than that, but the end of the verse was a bit different:

Remember Man as You Pass By
As you are Now, so Once was I
As I am Now, so you Soon will Be
Together in Eternity

I'm not positive about the last line- I memorized the poem on the spot and it's been many years since then- it might have been "Equals in Eternity", or possible "Partners in Eternity". Similar sentiment either way. There was another grave in the same cemetery with a partially eroded verse about equality, so I may be getting the two mixed up.
Interesting either way- it's stuck with me obviously.
I do think the variation is intriguing- it has a slightly different connotation than the (apparently) more common "prepare for death and follow me", although the gist of the line is similar.
Thanks for the interesting post!

halfdreaming said...

My father is really into genealogy, so any family road trip has usually been accompanied by at least one side trip to find "old dead relatives" (breaking into cemeteries or hopping fences is not unusual, much to my mother's chagrin).

One of the graveyards we visited when I was 8 or 9 had a stone with a variation of this inscription. The graveyard was somewhere in Appalachia, I believe in NC or Tenn. Maybe Missouri, but I think NC is the most likely. I memorized the stone on the spot, but it's been a long time since then, so my memory for the last line might be off.

Remember Man as you pass by,
As you are now, so once was I
As I am now, so you soon will be
Together in Eternity

The last line may have been "Equals in Eternity" or "Partners in Eternity" and I think it was probably "soon shall be", not 'will be'. Either way, the sentiment is about the same. I know there was another grave in the same cemetery that had a partially eroded inscription about equality, so I may be confusing the two.

I thought this variation was interesting because it has a different connotation than the (apparently) more common "prepare for death..." line, although the basic gist is similar. Perhaps whomever purchased the grave stone found the original last line a bit creepy? Who knows.

Obviously the poem has stuck with me for many years, so I was interested to see your post. Thanks for the info!

Anonymous said...

To follow you I'm not content
Until I know which way you went