William L. Clements Library

Past Exhibit

"So Once Were We": Death in Early America

October 17, 2011 — February 17, 2012

Curated by Cheney J. Schopieray

Mortality is a useful lens through which we may view many aspects of early American society. So Once Were We explores American practices and traditions for coping with death, from the early years of European exploration and discovery to the early 20th century and the burgeoning modern funeral industry. 

"So Once Were We" is a partial line from a once-common verse, which has many variations.  One, from a Civil War-era tombstone in St. Clair County, Alabama, is "Remember us, as you pass by / as you are now, so once were we." The title embodies several themes in the exhibit: the transatlantic movement of ideas and traditions, the universal experience of death, and personal and collective remembrance.

The exhibit is organized topically and holds primary resources related to changing religious and social practices; illness, disease, and medicine; practical aspects of post-mortem care; etiquette and fashion; funerals and cemeteries; memory and commemoration; and the professionalization of death industries.

In 2016, this exhibit was enhanced for online viewing.