THE CROWD in the cemetery on Memorial Day was small, a mere fraction of the one underfoot, and not many there remember when it was an occasion . A few years ago I stood beside the old gravedigger on Memorial Day -- he called it Decoration Day -- and he looked across the monuments, the older ones leaning this way and that, obviously his favorites in that quiet yard, and he said, "This is your day." It was a gesture he believed in, just as he believed in keeping a record of everyone he buried.

It's been some time since the day aroused many sentiments, and a lot of people, thinking of the capable pleasures of visiting folks and eating outside on such a day, haven't much time for mortal thoughts. It's predictable behavior, and outside my window the soft maple has just come into its own and the spinach is up. Mortal thoughts are easily sidetracked in the face of such evidence to the contrary.

Life's a subtle courtroom, however, and the evidence never seems to be all in. It is true that across from the graveyard are just-planted fields and new lambs, but while seeing that picture what was on my mind was the way the groundhog sounded in the woods when the old labrador chased him down, one high, ragged, unforgettable note, and the rattle of two dead walnut trees in the wind. Contradictory evidence abounds, and life at times seems to be a circumstantial race between the defense and the prosecution.

The race that life properly is, however, is the race to get something done, some work that counts, as a way of saying we've been here. "This hobble of being alive is rather serious, don't you think so?" says Thomas Hardy's character, Clare, in "Tess of the D'Urbervilles." There's a moral law behind the gift of energy, although admittedly it appears to be a subtle one and is not found on any of the statute books.

My neighbor, Mr. Taylor, says that when he was a young man beginning to farm his ambition was to one day put gates in all the openings on his farm, and have those gates on hinges. Given the nature of those years when Mr. Taylor was beginning to farm, I understand his ambition as a moral one.

"It was not finances that kept me from this ambition," explained Mr. Taylor. "I got all the gates in and on hinges, then time passed and the posts rotted. And there I was." Farming people, better than most others, have a sure sense of the high likelihood of going through unfinished. Each day has its own mortalities.

So we come down here to the cemetery on this day, contrite and sober, for the reminder just as though we needed it. It isn't a bad ritual as rituals go and my attitude toward ritual itself seems to soften each year. That's a mortal reaction, I'd say, and it amuses me some, although I don't think I'll yet aspire to membership in the Masons.

I believe in one fraternity and that one is underfoot. It makes me consider carefully the heedless optimism of spring, the studied humility of ministers and the alluring promise of regular employment. It's a fraternity which has never been accused of segregation or favoritism (although it is guilty, it seems to me, of nepotism) and while membership requirements vary, it's quite a large club. Sooner or later, everybody gets in.

Confronted with membership, we'd all like to get in with dignity, perhaps with style. The gravedigger tells me about the passing of Phillip Lemar, someone he admired. "He was dying, there across the creek," recalls the gravedigger, "and Reverend Trout walked in. 'A word of prayer?' he asked and Phillip Lemar said to the reverend, 'Well, damn it all, yes, if it'll do you any good . . .'"

Those were his last words, the gravedigger said, and given some margin for misinterpretation, I'd say they had both dignity and style.