During the intermission between acts, stagehands set up rows of chairs to represent graves in a cemetery. Mrs. Gibbs, Simon Stimson, Mrs. Soames, and Wally Webb, all dead, go on-stage before the act begins. The stage manager finally begins the act, announcing that nine years have gone by since act two.
The stage manager describes some of the changes coming to Grover’s Corners. Cars are replacing horses on the roads, and everyone locks their doors at night. Still, the stage manager says that “on the whole, things don’t change much around here.”
Like its individual citizens, Grover’s Corners inevitably undergoes changes as time moves on. However, as the stage manager says, it remains essentially the same town.
The stage manager talks about the cemetery and points out the older gravestones from the 17th century, as well as the graves of Grover’s Corners citizens who died fighting in the Civil War. Among more recent deaths, the stage manager points out the graves of Simon Stimson, Mrs. Soames, and Wally Webb (who died young of a burst appendix). The stage manager reflects on death, saying that there’s something eternal about every human, and that deceased people linger on the earth for some time after death, becoming indifferent to earthly matters as they lose their individual identities.
The graves suggest the continuity of life in Grover’s Corners, as citizens have been buried here in the same way for centuries. The stage manager's comments about the gravestones of Stimson and Mrs. Soames and the fact that the dead linger on suddenly makes it clear to the audience that the Stimson and Soame's onstage are actually dead. Wally's death shows how death can strike at any time, even the young.
Joe Stoddard, the town undertaker, enters and runs into Sam Craig, who grew up in Grover’s Corners and has returned to attend his cousin’s funeral. The two agree how sad it is when someone dies young (we do not yet know whose funeral it is) and Sam looks at various graves.
Unlike George, Sam has left Grover’s Corners after growing up. However, he is brought back to the small town by his family ties. By centering the play here around Sam, Thornton can also avoid revealing who has died.
The dead Mrs. Gibbs points out Sam, her nephew, to Simon Stimson. Sam sees Simon’s grave and recalls his habit of drinking. Joe informs him that Simon took his own life.
Simon’s tragic death shows the potential darker side of small-town communities. The overlooking of Stimson's drunkenness seemed a kindness. But suddenly, now, it seems as if perhaps an intervention might have been more kind.
Sam asks what caused the death of his cousin and Joe says she died in childbirth. The funeral procession arrives, including George, Dr. Gibbs, and Mr. and Mrs. Webb. Mrs. Soames asks who died, and Mrs. Gibbs answers that it was Emily.
As it is finally revealed that Emily has died, the full force of the play’s temporal jump is felt: we last saw Emily on her wedding day. Now she is already dead.
Mrs. Soames recalls Emily and George’s wedding and how intelligent Emily was in school. A group at the funeral sings “Blessed Be the Tie That Binds.” As the casket is put into the ground, Emily enters and joins the deceased characters. She says that it feels like thousands of years have passed since she was living. She comments that her father must have remembered that “Blessed Be the Tie That Binds” was her favorite hymn. She tells Mrs. Gibbs about her home with George.
As the hymn appears again, it emphasizes the connectedness of the townspeople brought together for Emily’s funeral. In addition, it further suggests that the tie that most deeply connects all humans is that of mortality, the fact that death awaits every person. Emily’s sense of time now that she has died is dramatically different from how the living experience time.
Emily comments that “live people don’t understand,” and Mrs. Gibbs agrees. Emily describes living people as “shut up in little boxes.” The funeral ends and the mourners disperse. Dr. Gibbs brings some flowers to his wife’s grave, then leaves.
After dying, Emily has gained a broader perspective on life and time. She can now see how each person is lost inside him or herself, how people's focus on themselves and their narrow focus on what is happening now limits their ability to connect to each other or appreciate the connections they have. Her perspective, whereby she knows much more than the living people of Grover’s Corners can, is eerily similar to the position of the audience.
Emily asks if she can go back and relive her life. Mrs. Gibbs says she can, but advises her not to. The stage manager tells her that it is painful because if she relives her life, she will watch herself living it, knowing the future and all that will happen to everyone. Mrs. Gibbs tells her that dead people are supposed to forget their lives on earth and move on.
But Emily is determined relive some of her earlier life. Mrs. Gibbs tells her to at least choose an ordinary, unimportant day. Emily chooses her twelfth birthday and goes back to February 1899. She is astonished to see Grover’s Corners as she remembers it from her childhood. She sees Howie Newsome, Constable Warren, and Joe Crowell talking and remarks that Constable Warren has since died.
Howie Newsome, Constable Warren, and Joe Crowell are all features of Grover’s Corners as it used to be. As the town inevitably changes over time, Emily is excited to revisit the town she knew as a child.
Emily sees her mother, Mrs. Webb, and is amazed at how young she looks. Mr. Webb walks up Main Street, returning home from a trip to New York. Mr. Webb talks to Constable Warren, who describes how he saved a Polish man from freezing out in the snow. Mr. Webb exclaims that he must write about it in the newspaper, but Warren tells him it wasn’t a big deal.
Mr. Webb is excited to have a news story to write about in this uneventful town, though even Constable Warren doesn’t think the event to be particularly newsworthy.
Mr. Webb arrives home and talks with Mrs. Webb about the cold weather they’ve been having. Mrs. Webb reminds him that it is Emily’s birthday. Meanwhile, Emily says that she “can’t bear it” and is amazed at how young her parents are, though she knows they have actually grown old. She enters her family’s house.
It is beginning to become painful for Emily to relive even a rather ordinary day, because even seeing her young-looking parents, she knows that they will inevitably grow old and die. Emily knows he short their lives are and how they are taking that time for granted.
Emily talks with her mother but is finding reliving her life to be more and more difficult. Mrs. Webb makes Emily breakfast and shows her a present George brought her earlier that morning. Emily tries to tell her mother all about the future, how she married George and had a child, how Wally died. Mrs. Webb doesn’t appear to register any of this, though.
From our temporal perspective, we know that George’s gift may actually be a sign of his budding affections for Emily. Emily can’t bear seeing her mother unaware of Wally’s premature death, because if she knew she could spend that time with Wally so much more intensely, could pay so much more attention. Emily, who is dead, can't bear how the living act without any urgency, as if they won't ever die, when of course they will, and soon.
Emily tells the stage manager that she can’t go on reliving her life, because “it goes so fast. We don’t have time to look at one another.” She begins to cry and asks the stage manager to take her back to the cemetery. She asks him, “Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it?” and he answers no.
Emily returns to the other deceased characters and tells them she should have taken their advice about not going back in time, calling human beings “just blind people.” Simon Stimson agrees and tells her that now she knows being alive means living in “ignorance and blindness,” though Mrs. Gibbs responds that “that ain’t the whole truth.”
From the perspective of the dead, the living are blind and ignorant, not realizing how important their everyday lives are and how quickly time passes. Mrs. Gibbs, though, tempers this pessimism, suggesting that there may be more to life than ignorance and blindness—there is love and community..
An anonymous man among the dead starts speaking about his son, a sailor, who used to say that it took millions of years for the light from stars to reach earth, which the anonymous dead man found incredible. Meanwhile, George walks into the cemetery and kneels before Emily’s grave in grief, much to the disapproval of some of the dead. Emily comments that the living don’t understand, and Mrs. Gibbs agrees.
The fact about the stars places the individual lives of Grover’s Corners residents in the context of the entire universe’s time. This would seem to suggest that our lives are insignificant, but the dead characters see the fleetingness of our lives as making every instant all the more significant, all the more worthy of value and appreciation. George's grief at his wife's death speaks to his love for her. Yet Emily's comment reiterates that the living don't cherish their ordinary, everyday lives as much as they should. That the time for George to express his love is not so much now—when his wife is dead—as it was when she was alive, since it was always clear that one day she would die.
The stage manager slowly draws a curtain across the stage as he gives a final speech. He says most people are going to sleep now in Grover’s Corners, and the stars are visible in the sky “doing their old, old crisscross journeys in the sky.” He tells the audience good night, tells them to get some good rest, and the play ends.
The stage manager continues his dual role both within the fictional town and partly outside it, aware of the play as a theatrical production. Amid all the changes that have happened, the play ends with an assurance of both continuity and change: people are sleeping in Grover’s Corners as they always do, while the stars are the same in the sky, moving through their paths as time passes as love blooms again and again and as people continue to fall into death.