There’s a straight line from Greg Melville’s summer job in Bedford more than 30 years ago to the release of his latest book this week.
Over My Dead Body: Unearthing the Hidden History of America’s Cemeteries focuses on 18 cemeteries in the United States from architectural, political, and literary perspectives.
“Before my senior year of college, I worked for the Department of Public Works,” recounted Melville, a 1988 Bedford High School graduate. “We spent a good part of our time pushing a mower in Shawsheen Cemetery, and occasionally we would help with getting a grave ready. “
“Ever since then, I have had this interest in cemeteries and the stories they tell.”
There are some 150,000 cemeteries and graveyards nationwide, Melville said. “Every person who drives to work every day drives by cemeteries without even thinking about them.”
The 262-page book’s prologue and epilogue are first-person accounts at Shawsheen Cemetery, Melville said. “Each chapter focuses on a different cemetery,” and the order is chronological as U.S. history unfolded: from Jamestown, VA, to Plymouth, MA, to Concord’s Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, and so on.
The book, which is dedicated to Melville’s parents, Joan and David, is published by Abrams Books.
Melville earned his undergraduate degree at Kenyon College in Ohio and a master’s in journalism from Pennsylvania State. He began his career as a journalist, and also worked as an editor for magazines before turning to freelance work for travel, outdoor, parenting, and sports publications.
In 2010 he joined the U.S. Navy Reserve — at age 39. He said he completed an abbreviated officer school thanks to his specialty as a writer and became a Naval public affairs officer.
“I always wanted to serve,” Melville said. “This enabled me to use my expertise in a way to serve. Most writers who are on their own have a side gig — and the Navy was a good side gig.”
Melville was deployed to Afghanistan in 2013 for the better part of a year, serving as a spokesperson. He remains in the Navy Reserve, and has been teaching English at the U.S. Naval Academy since 2017.
He said he wrote Over My Dead Body “more from a journalist’s perspective than a historian’s. It’s not about individuals buried there, but about the stories that these cemeteries tell as a whole.”
“Cemeteries have been our first city parks. They’re where landscape architecture was born,” Melville explained. “They were our first public art museums. The layout of Disneyland was inspired by a cemetery.”
“Cemeteries have always been intertwined with our history, often shaping it. Yet these capsules of history still go overlooked,” he continued. “That’s what the book is about: revealing these time capsules that are everywhere.”
Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Melville writes, was the country’s first city park, founded in 1831. That was a radical concept for its time, as “nature was thought of as something to be used, not preserved. The organizers found a piece of land where they could landscape and create this new form of cemetery different from churchyards.”
Shawsheen Cemetery, established in 1949, was modeled after Mount Auburn.
Sleepy Hollow, off Route 62, was founded in 1855 specifically for preservation, Melville related. “It was actually the nation’s first conservation project, spearheaded by Ralph Waldo Emerson, in order to preserve a forest right at the edge of downtown that was in danger of being clear cut.”
In those days, he continued, “people weren’t embalmed. There was nothing unnatural that was put into the ground, so the thought of using a cemetery as a conservation area wasn’t that outlandish.”
Embalming, he continued, was a practice that began during the Civil War, when bodies were shipped from distant battlefields for burial. “An industry of undertakers arose and needed to find new customers, so they offered services to the general public.’
“I’m kind of an adventurer and travel writer by trade, so it’s a first-person journey to each one of the cemeteries,” Melville said. “Each one either shapes or mirrors American history during that period. It ends with a natural cemetery in Philadelphia, part of a classic rural cemetery called Laurel Hill. There are no stones, people are buried in shrouds and it eventually will be forested.”
Melville will discuss the book with Matthew Stephens, president and CEO of Mount Auburn Cemetery, at the Harvard Book Store in Cambridge Friday, Oct. 28, at 7 p.m.
“I started working on this book when I came to the Naval Academy, researching it and doing the early stages of writing,” Melville related. This isn’t his first book – he co-wrote a travel guide around 2007 and the following year wrote Greasy Rider, which he said is about “an old Mercedes station wagon powered by French-fry grease. We rode across the country in it.”
Melville and his wife have two children. They live in Delaware.