Memento Mori

Figure 1. Page-Ange monument. Maplewood Cemetery, Durham, N.C. Photo: author.

The Page-Ange monument in Maplewood Cemetery in Durham, N.C., exhibits a form of a common topos, the memento mori (“remember to die”, or more commonly, “remember that you will die”). The stone, to judge by the family headstones, dates to approximately 1949.

The standard form is: “As you are now, so once was I; as I am now, you soon will be.” Nice little iambs, in fact a pair of tetrameters. Something has gone grimly wrong in the Page-Ange text, however. Here is the poem with the beats marked:

Remémber fríends as yóu pass bý
As yóu are nów ónce was Í
As í am nów you are sóon to bé
Prepáre to méet thy Gód and fóllow mé

This is just crazy bananas with its needlessly syncopated second verse, its third which slips for a moment into three-quarter time, and fourth pentameter. The first and fourth verses are in fact framing elements, ‘Remember’ in the first making explicit the ‘memento’, and ‘God’ in the fourth making it explicitly Christian. The frame adds an AABB rhyming pattern.

The central idea has been common as death itself since antiquity, and can be found world-wide. For our purposes, the English couplet, embellished, as on the Page-Ange monument, or embedded within longer attempts at funerary verse, is ubiquitous.

In the United States, as late as 1962, there is the headstone of Daisy Odom in the Mount Calvary Baptist Church Cemetery in Blackville, S.C.:

Remember friends as you pass by,
As you are now so once was I
As I am now, you soon must be
Prepare to meet thy God and follow me.

This is much better in most respects, although the fourth verse is likewise a pentameter.

Transcribed tombstones from the U.K., readily available online, carry the topos back well into the early 19th and late 18th century. A few will illustrate the larger trend.

At Morwenstow Parish Church in Cornwall, U.K. The phrase ‘prepare to meet thy God’ appears numerous times in several variants in the 18th and 19th centuries, but I note the following two relevant examples, good tetrameters from the grave of John Hooper, from 1734,

Stay travelrs stay now cast an eye
As you be now so once was I
As I am now so must you be
Therefore prepare and follow me

and more good tetrameters from that of Benjamin Adams in 1804,

As you pass by pray cast an eye
As you are now so once was I
As I am now so you must be
Prepare for death you’ll follow me
.

An anonymous grave in Langtree Parish in North Devon in the U.K. comes pentameters,

Prepare to meet thy God and follow me
As I am now so shortly shall thou be.

William Newcombe’s grave of 1824 at Newton St Petrock, U.K., also with pentameters, runs:

Prepare to meet thy God and follow me,
As I am now so shortly thou shall be.

The point of these is to show how there is remarkable flexibility in the statement of the main idea and a wide variety of accompanying verses. In fact, the Page-Ange and Odom final verses are basically taken, along with the rest, from this long series of expressions of the memento mori. Once you start thinking that you will draw elements from established poems it becomes thinkable to grab a pentameter to add onto a body of tetrameters if it mentions God in a way you like.

But what about the problematic second and third Page-Ange verses, which are, as I believe, erroneously disjointed? I propose the following reconstruction as what the composer might have had in mind (with bold additions, tacit deletions, and punctuation):

Remémber fríends as yóu pass bý,
As yóu are nów, so ónce was Í.
As í am nów, you sóon will bé:
Prepáre to méet thy Gód and fóllow mé
.

John Hooper’s stone has a fine example of the conceit that the stone addresses the traveler in the voice of the deceased. “Stay, travelers, stay,” is as nice an opening as I’ve seen.

Published by gsb03632

A college professor living in Arlington, VA

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