Discuss the speeches of the dead in the cemetery in Act III of Our Town by Thornton Wilder.  Explain the Stage Manager's conviction that death is a process of learning to forget about life.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Mother Gibbs, when does this feeling go away?--Of being...one of them?

The Stage Manager tells the audience that the dead begin to separate themselves from the living. They forget about human life, and even their own names.  In Act III, Our Town by Thornton Wilder, there has been a death.  The grave has been prepared, and the mourners surround the casket and the grave.  Sadly, it is raining, symbolic of the loss of someone who was too young to die.

As the graveside service continues, the mourners are unaware of the dead seated in the chairs representative of their grave sites. The dead begin to speak. The audience learns that Emily Webb Gibbs has died in childbirth.  Mrs. Gibbs does remember that Emily was her daughter-in-law.  Mrs. Soames tells Mrs. Gibbs that she had forgotten about childbirth and adds that life was terrible.  Mrs. Gibbs still recalls that life could be wonderful as well.  The alcoholic who committed suicide,  Mr. Stimson sarcastically repeats Mrs. Gibbs comment denoting his unhappiness when he was alive.

None of these dead have fully disconnected from the living.  Mrs. Soames reminisces about Emily’s lovely wedding, remembering that she had even visited Emily and George on their new farm. Several of the unknown dead comment on the quality of the Gibbs' new farm.

The dead seem to retain some of the qualities of their personalities in death. Mrs. Gibbs comments on life being wonderful; Mrs. Soames indicates that life could be terrible and chatters on; and Mr. Stimson, so unhappy in life seems equally disturbed in death.

As if she were in a trance, Emily joins the dead in her grave next to her mother-in-law. Detachment from the living has not come to Emily yet, and she is drawn to the mourners who are still circling the grave. In the background, the group is singing the hymn “Bless Be the Tie That Binds.” This was Emily’s favorite hymn.

As Emily waits, she tells Mrs. Gibbs that she and George used the money that she left them when she died to buy the farm.  Mrs. Gibbs does not remember giving the money, nor is she interested in the details of the farm.  Nervous and restless, Emily chatters on…until she realizes that the living do not understand what it feels like to be dead. The audience learns that Emily and George already had one son who was staying at the house of one of the other dead.

As Emily draws farther away from the living, she seems to understand that everyone lives within his own space:

They’re sort of shut up in little boxes, aren’t they? I feel as though I knew them last a thousand years ago….”

Obviously, Dr. Gibbs still misses his wife because he comes to her grave with flowers. Emily comments on how troubled the living are when they lose someone.  She still feels a great love for her father-in-law;  however, Mrs. Gibbs never looks at her husband.

After a time, the mourners leave the dead to the beautiful spot on the hill. The dead begin to discuss the weather without showing any emotion…


Approved by eNotes Editorial Team