In “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard,” Thomas Gray reflects on several different aspects of death. First, he notes the physical finality of it. The people buried in the churchyard will no longer rise “from their lowly bed.” They have been cut off from their daily lives. Women will no longer perform their duties around the house. Children and parents will no longer exchange kisses. Farmers will no longer till the soil or harvest their crops. Death has ended all of that.
Death has also robbed the people buried in the churchyard of their potential. Perhaps someone lying there had a heart filled “with celestial fire” that was never expressed in poetry. Perhaps another might have ruled an empire or composed wonderful music. Death has prevented that. But on the other hand, death may also have prevented another cruel tyrant from walking the earth and bringing pain and slaughter. This would be a more positive aspect of death.
Now, though, these people are remembered mostly through their grave memorials. Some are elaborate, others plain. Yet the people that rest beneath them all dead the same. Indeed, death is the great leveler. It comes for all people, and no one, rich or poor, can escape it.
Yet the epitaph at the end of the poem offers another perspective on death. The dead have presumably escaped from earthly misery and found their home in Heaven, resting in God's arms. Death is thus an entry into another, better life.
In "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard," Thomas Gray's attitude toward death at first is that everyone faces the same end, regardless of their social standing or sense of importance:
The paths of glory lead but to the grave.
With many of the lines of this poem, the author notes the positions in life that the living once held, and the activities that filled their days. He compares the powerful and humble. The mighty reach an end that is exactly the same as the lowly:
The boast of heraldry, the pomp of power,
And all that beauty, all that wealth e'er gave,
Awaits alike th' inevitable hour...
Gray asks if a "neglected spot" he sees in the graveyard might hold the body of one in life who was powerful and revered:
...is laid...Some heart...that the rod of empire might have sway'd,
The author envisions those whose lives were filled not with greatness as it might be deemed by some, but a significant joy in the pursuit of family life:
For them no more the blazing hearth shall burn,
Or busy housewife ply her evening care:
No children run to lisp their sire's return,
Or climb his knees the envied kiss to share...
Throughout the poem, Gray notes that beauty and importance in life may be measured by a society, but that these things exist even outside that realm. Recognition by some does not measure the true nature or beauty of all things, all people. Even those unnoticed have been noteworthy.
Full many a flower is born to blush unseen,
And waste its sweetness on the desert air.
The loss of one meek or poor soul is a loss much the same as that of a "Milton" or a "Cromwell." Some, in life, moved quietly:
Along the cool sequester'd vale of life
They kept the noiseless tenour of their way.
Gray—who we can assume by the title is reflecting upon the many grave sites in a cemetery—the death of each person there deserves "the passing tribute of a sigh."
The poem's "epitaph" seems to speak to one solitary individual, who was not extolled in life, and this may be the true focus of the poem:
A youth to Fortune and to Fame unknown
Fair Science frowned not on his humble birth,
And Melancholy marked him for her own.
It seems that this man had little, but gave all he had to those in need, even if all he had was a "tear." And God rewarded him for "his soul sincere." And...
He gained from Heaven ('twas all he wish'd) a friend.
No farther seek his merits to disclose,
Or draw his frailties from their dread abode
(There they alike in trembling hope repose),
The bosom of his Father and his God.
This last segment extols the man's virtues in life, helping those less fortunate—not for the praise of others, but simply to find upon his death a place in heaven—in the "bosom of his Father and his God." Based upon capitalization, his "Father" is "God." While he may be speaking of a man dedicated to finding heaven, perhaps Gray is speaking of a Christ-like figure—or even the actual person of Christ.
Gray's poem says all life ends in death, regardless of how important one was in life. However, more importantly, is the kind of life led that would bring one beyond death, into Heaven. While all may die, not all will go to Heaven. Heaven, it would seem the author is saying, conquers death.
Gray may be writing his own epitaph in the poem—with the hope of a life lived well; or he might be alluding to the truest example of the life "well led" and the one who conquered death—Christ himself.