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Poetry from Headstones

Variations on a theme


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Poems or verses tend to recur with unflagging regularity, sometimes with a subtle difference in the tone or a slight alteration in the wording. The poem that is used as the introduction to the History From Headstones poetry section:

 

Remember Man as you go by
As you are now so once was I
As I am now so shall you be,
Prepare yourself to follow me

 

is replicated in many versions, in many countries, on many tombstones. Its clarion call to the living to concentrate their minds on the inevitability of death is guaranteed to chill the spine of the most optimistic of souls; its somewhat sanctimonious shredding of the schadenfreude we might feel at being numbered amongst the living while mourning the dead, is truly a blast of reality from beyond the grave.

 

The Shannon headstone erected in 1857 in Balmoral Cemetery, Belfast, offers one variant on this refrain:

 

Stop traveller and cast an eye,
As you are now so once was I,
Prepare in time make no delay
For youth and time will pass away.

 

The headstone erected by Widow Gentle in Knockbreda graveyard, County Down, to the memory of her husband Matthew offers another:

 

Once I stood where thou dost now,
And viewed the dead as thou dost me,
Ere long thou'lt lie as low as I
And others stand and look on thee.

 

A third version adorns the McCavitt gravestone at Killeney:

 

Good people dear as you pass by,
On my cold grave do cast an eye
As you are now so once was I,
As I am now so shall you be,
Prepare for death and follow me.
Erected to the memory of John McCavitt, Killeney, who died 15th September 1873

 

This verse has uncanny similarities to the famous self-penned (in 1938) epitaph inscribed upon the gravestone, in Drumcliff cemetery, Sligo, of the poet William Butler Yeats:

 

Cast a cold eye
On life, on death
Horseman Pass by!

 

Although this verse and its variants ostensibly represent the warning words of the deceased, they were clearly written, the intervention of necromancers notwithstanding, by the living. One could read them as a didactic message from a conservative Church, some form of shock therapy aimed at controlling the aberrant behaviour of the flock, or merely an ironic comment on the transient nature of mortality. But human nature being what it is one will always encounter individual iconoclasts striving to undercut the strictures of society. Reputedly, some rather jaundiced souls, doubtless peeved at the perceived smugness of the verse, were wont to add on a terse, telling, two-fingered riposte:

 

I won’t be content
Until I know which way you went.

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