Thursday, April 21, 2005

Remember, Man, as You Pass By

On my drive home after the ghastly events on Tuesday, feeling utterly gutted, I couldn't resist a soul-restoring stop-in at the St. James Reformed Cemetery. (And I was just gonna say, if you ain't reformed your cemetery yet, Jim, it's high damn time you saw to it, you wastrel).

Nothing like a little of somebody else's tragedy -- tragedy that you can walk away from after you've gawked at it for a bit -- to restore some sense of perspective.

Lovettsville was established as "The German Settlement" by Pennsylvania Dutch emigrés, who'd escaped the bloodthirsty Europe of the Thirty Years' War and the War of the Spanish Succession in the first decade of the 18th century.

These people were (and are probably proud to say they still are) a parsimonious bunch. Compared to the contemporary Quaker and English neighboring towns of Waterford and Hillsboro, Lovettsville is a bit unprepossessing, grandeur-wise. I've seen comments by Yardley Taylor, a mid-19th-century surveyor, who was moved to observe that the descendants of these first settlers at the foot of Short Hill had established marvelously prosperous farms and businesses and could easily afford to improve their homes -- but still chose to live in small, rude, one-room cabins.

I took a picture of one of the earliest gravestones I could find:

It reads:

An-Maria Mauer
Gebohren den 6 Abril
Anno 1789


An-Maria Mauer
Born 6 April
Year 1789

A terribly sad story: A young child, no more than 20 months, who died we don't know how. But it was a cruel, cruel world these people inhabited, and the Lovettsville cemetery (as with any cemetery in the world that predates antiseptics and antibiotics) is filled with tragic cases like this. But what's so moving about this one is the amateurishness of the carving -- backwards N's, visible line-rulings, nonstandard spelling of geboren (my German is BabelFish pathetic -- if anyone can tell me if this is an older spelling I'd appreciate it).

But despite the lack of skill, look at the obvious care lavished by the barely literate carver. I can't help but think that this was done by the child's father, and when I think of the idea of having to find within myself the strength to carve my own infant child's headstone using only materials to hand, I have a hard time keeping myself from weeping.

But there it is, 215 years later. We still know An-Maria lived. You were a good father, Herr Mauer. I'd like to shake your hand.

I also speculate that a professional stonecutter moved to the valley soon after An-Maria shuffled off this mortal coil, because the gravestones started to look like this:

Such beautiful lettering! Such elegant lines, graceful strokes of varying weight, subtle widening of the descenders in the lowercase y's -- look at the descending loop in the lowercase g in the word "age" in the second to last line! Mary, I'm sure, was worth the effort -- every bit as elegant and refined as her tombstone when she died at the age of 28. I bet Samuel really loved her.

Here's Margaret Colmes Wire, who's of special interest because the Wire family still runs the George's Mill Bed and Breakfast just down the road from me. Margaret was 29 when she died in childbirth in 1821. The text in the heart at the bottom of the stone informs us that her unnamed infant is buried beside her.

Hannah Cole was born at the same time as the U.S. Constitution and died the year the Monroe Doctrine was declared.

Here's the detail that prompts her inclusion here, a sober truth that's been very much on my mind lately:

Remember, Man, as you pass by
As you are now, so once was I
As I am now, so you shall be
Prepare for Death and follow me
Thank you, Mrs. Cole. Thank you very much.

(Psst! Sisyphus Shrugged kids! There's lots more good stuff... Try the Mobberly Trail, an ongoing series about an entertaining Civil War psycho (there's a link to the next post in the series at the bottom of each post) -- plus I've got stuff about the Pogo Comical Strip, Rhino Records psychedelic rereleases, how to write the World's Catchiest Song, an abandoned stone house I found in the woods near my house, a meditation on time... If you ever get lost click the title of the blog; that'll take you back to today's post.)


Bobby Lightfoot said...

Bitchin' post. Pretend I used a more tender adjective. Anyway, I liked it a lot. And ain't it great that all this hasn't been bulldozed. Yet.

Um, in modern German the only difference is "geboren" no longer has the "h". "Geburtig" is more common.

Here's somethin' funny you'll recognize being a Spanish speaker- in Spanish "to give birth" is to "dar a luz" or "give to light".

In German it's "das licht der Welt erblicken" which means "to show the light of the world".


Anonymous said...

I went down to St. James Infirmary,
And I saw my baby there.
She was stretched out on a long white table,
So cold, so still, so fair.


My name is Death, none can excel,
I open the gates to heaven or hell --
I lock your jaws so you can't talk,
I lock your legs so you can't walk.

Oh, Death,
Oh, Death,
Can't you spare me over for another year?

... the old songs were pretty matter-of-fact about death, and didn't give it more power than it already has. No one considered living forever, no one pretended death wasn't part of the scheme of things. We didn't hide it, we didn't glorify it. We acknowledged it, railed about it, but we knew it was there.

And, in the end,
The love we take
Is equal to the
Love we make.


Vache Folle said...

By chance, I was early to choir practice yesterday, and I took a stroll through the cemetery of the Hopewell Reformed Church (established in the 1730s).

I was moved by the evidence of infant mortality (my masters thesis was devoted to infant mortality among 19th century Mennonites) but was also heartened by the evidence of continuity. Here are generations of Storms (for whom my community of Stormville amd nearby Mount Storm are named), Van Wyks, and families that are still part of the congregation to this day. All the graves are maintained and cared for, and all the stones are in place. This is in contrast to my wife's ancestral village in Shropshire where many of the stones are stacked along a wall. My own ancestors are largely in now unmarked graves, some beneath roadways, and many more lost to TVA lakes.

All these graveyards are treasures, and projects to photograph them and record the information in them should be lauded. THanks for the post.

Anonymous said...

Yep, gebohren is an older spelling -- it is the past tense of behren, "to bear". I don't know when the h was dropped.

Anonymous said...

Nice post! Very interesting, though in my hometown here in Iowa there is a gravestone with a very similar epitaph which reads "Remember me as you pass by. As you are now, so once was I. As I am now you soon shall be. Prepare for death and follow me" I have been doing a little research and am trying to find out where this little saying comes from. If you know email me at

Anonymous said...

My GGGG Grandfather, Benjamin Allen (originally from somewhere in New England) passed April 14th, 1823. On his headstone is the inscription: "Remember man as you pass by, As you are now, so once was I, As I am now so will you be, Remember man, you have to die." The headstone is in Baie Verte Cemetary, Baie Verte, New Brunswick, Canada. I still don't know where the inscription originated, but found your sight interesting.

Anonymous said...

remember man as you pass by,
for as you are, so once was i
and as i am, so you will be,
remember man and pray for me.

(i read this in a very old cemetery in samr, philippines)

Anonymous said...

remember man as you pass by,
for as you are, so once was i
and as i am, so you will be,
remember man and follow me...

indeed i would with great content, if only i knew which way you went...

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anonymous said...

I live in utah, There is a pioneer's graveyard in park city called glenwood. There is a gravestone for a man who died circa 1870, can't remember his name. but the epitaph is a variation of the one you've posted.

"Remember Friends, as You walk by. As You are now, so was I. As I am now, You soon shall be. Prepare for Death and follow Me."

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Anonymous said...

listen friend as you pass by, as you are now, so once was I, as I am now, so you will be, take up your cross aand follow me. Commanche OK. cementary

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frank sky said...

No no no, erblicken is much more poetic than that. It's not he verb to show , rather,the main verb here meaning to catch a glimpse of, or here a better translated would be rendered in the emphatic
infinitive , behold the light of the world