Study Guide

A Gathering of Old Men The Cemetery

By Ernest J. Gaines

The Cemetery

Heartache, Healing, and History

For most people—and maybe you're one of them—the first thing that comes to mind when you think of a cemetery is death. Or maybe you think of a group of people—mourners—all dressed in black and crying as they say good-bye to somebody they loved. None of that is exactly stuff that makes you feel good, does it? 

But when Cherry starts talking about the cemetery where he and the old men are hanging out before they head on down to Mathu's place, that particular cemetery has to do with a whole lot more than sadness and death. Let's listen to what Cherry has to say: 

You had a dozen trees spread out over the graveyard, and about the same number of headstones, maybe two or three more. But twenty-five, thirty years ago, you didn't have more than two or three headstones in there all total. Back there when I was growing up, people didn't even mark graves. Each family had a little plot, and everybody knowed where that little plot was. If it was a big family, then they had to have a littmore, sometimes from the plot of a smaller family. But who cared? They had all come from the same place, they had mixed together when they was alive, so what's the difference if they mixed together now? That old graveyard had been the burial ground for Black folks ever since the time of slavery. I was seventy-four, and I had grandparents in there. (6.19) 

Whew—that's a huge chunk of text, but a ton of stuff is happening there. Cherry's comments make it clear that the cemetery has been around for a long, long while—since the time of slavery, in fact. This makes the cemetery a piece of real and very vibrant history. Then there's the way Cherry describes how families would share plots—how individual families became mixed into one large group. These images of sharing are meant to make us realize just how strong the sense of community is among the African Americans living at or around Marshall. But Gaines doesn't stop there. 

Cherry gives us a seriously touching image of Jacob Aguillard pulling up the weeds that had grown up around his sister Tessie's grave and saying a small prayer when he'd finished. This tells us that the cemetery isn't just a place where you go to mourn. It's a place where you go to think and remember. "Next thing you knowed," Cherry tells us, "every last one of us was in there visiting our people's graves" (6.22). At one point, Cherry even tries to start up a conversation with Dirty Red, telling him "I reckon a lot of them in here go'n be proud after this day's over" (6.45). This little bit of dialogue is Gaines's way of showing us that the men who decide to stand together at Marshall aren't just doing it for themselves. They're taking a stand on behalf of the family they've lost who spent a lifetime breaking their backs and working on their knees, in part because they feel like they owe it to their family and friends to do it.