There’s a straight line from Greg Melville’s summer job at Bedford over 30 years ago to release his latest book this week.
Over My Dead Body: Uncovering the Hidden History of America’s Cemeteries Focuses on 18 cemeteries in the United States from an architectural, political, and literary perspective.
“Before my last year of college, I worked in the public works department,” Melville, a 1988 Bedford High School graduate, recounted. “We spent a good part of our time pushing a mower at Shushan Cemetery, and sometimes we even helped out the grave.”
“Since then, I have taken a lot of interest in the cemeteries and the stories they tell.”
Melville said there are about 150,000 cemeteries and cemeteries across the country. “Everyone who drives to work every day passes the cemetery without even thinking about it.”
Melville said that the 262-page book’s introduction and conclusion are first-person narratives in Shaoxin Cemetery. “Each chapter focuses on a different cemetery,” and the arrangement is chronological as American history revealed: from Jamestown, Virginia, to Plymouth, Massachusetts, to Concorde Sleepy Hollow cemetery, and so on.
The book, dedicated to Melville’s parents, Joan and David, is published by Abrams Books.
Melville earned his undergraduate degree from Kenyon College in Ohio and his master’s degree in journalism from Penn State. Starting his career as a journalist, he also worked as a magazine editor before turning to freelance work in travel, outdoors, childrearing, and sports publications.
In 2010 he joined the US Naval Reserve – at the age of 39. He said he completed a shortened officer’s school thanks to his specialization as a clerk and became a naval public affairs officer.
“I’ve always wanted to serve,” Melville said. “This enabled me to use my experience in a favor. Most writers who are on their own have a side party—and the Navy has been a good side party.”
Melville was posted to Afghanistan in 2013 for the better part of the year, serving as a spokesperson. Still in the Marine Reserve, he has been teaching English at the US Naval Academy since 2017.
He said he wrote On My Body “From a journalist’s perspective more than from a historian’s point of view. It is not about the individuals buried there, but the stories that these tombs tell as a whole.”
“The cemeteries were our first city parks. Landscape architecture was born,” Melville explained. It was our first public art museum. The Disneyland design is inspired by a cemetery.
Cemeteries have always been intertwined with, and often shaped, our history. However, these date capsules are still being overlooked. “That’s what the book is about: Uncovering these ubiquitous time capsules.”
Melville wrote that Cambridge’s Mount Auburn Cemetery was the country’s first city park, founded in 1831. This was a radical concept at the time, as “nature was seen as something to be used rather than preserved. The organizers found a plot of land on which they could Creating the landscape and creating this new form of cemetery is different from church courtyards.”
Shaoxin Cemetery was established in 1949, modeled on Mount Auburn.
Sleepy Hollow, off Route 62, was established in 1855 specifically for conservation, related to Melville. “It was actually the first conservation project in the country, led by Ralph Waldo Emerson, to conserve a forest on the edge of downtown that was clearly in danger of being cut down.”
He continued, “In those days people were not embalmed. There was nothing abnormal that was placed in the ground, so the idea of using a cemetery as a protected area was not strange.”
He continued that mummification was a practice that began during the Civil War, when corpses were shipped from remote battlefields for burial. An industry arose out of contractors and needed to find new clients, so they provided services to the general public.
“I’m kind of an adventurer and travel writer by trade, so it’s a first-person journey into every graveyard,” Melville said. “Each one either constitutes or reflects American history during that period. It ends with a natural cemetery in Philadelphia, part of a classic country cemetery called Laurel Hill. There are no stones, people are buried in shrouds and it will eventually become woods.”
Melville will discuss the book with Matthew Stevens, president and CEO of Mount Auburn Cemetery, at the Harvard Book Store in Cambridge on Friday, October 28, at 7 p.m.
“I started working on this book when I came to the Naval Academy, doing research on it and doing the early stages of writing it,” Melville said. This is not his first book – he co-wrote a travel guide in 2007 and the following year he wrote greasy riderwhich he said was about “an old Mercedes running on French frying fat. We drove across the country in it.”
Melville and his wife have two children. They live in Delaware.