Housman didn't want there to be any confusion—this one is about death. It's right there in the title. However, he gives us a clue that he'll be trying to look on the bright side of the dark side (we mean death). The poem is to the athlete, as if he were still capable of hearing it.
Today, the road all runners come, Shoulder-high we bring you home, And set you at your threshold down, Townsman of a stiller town. (5-8)
The poem's second stanza sticks us right smack-dab in the middle of the athlete's funeral. But it doesn't seem so bad. The references to the athlete going home and being part of a town make the transition from the land of the living to the land of the dead seem like just a change of zip code and some new neighbors.
Eyes the shady night has shut Cannot see the record cut, And silence sounds no worse than cheers After earth has stopped the ears. (13-16)
That "shady night" is our old pal death. And according to our speaker, there are just all kinds of great benefits to being dead for this young athlete. Not only does he get his own pad in a new town, he never has to worry about seeing his record get broken, or missing the cheers of the crowd. He's going to be over there in the land of the dead and no longer concerned with stuff that happens in the land of the living. Great deal, right? Shmoop isn't so sure.