Over My Dead Body: Unearthing the Hidden History of America’s Cemeteries
Journalist Greg Melville’s Over My Dead Body is a lively tour through the history of US cemeteries that explores how, where, and why we bury our dead.
“Astonishing. . . fascinating . . . powerful. . .This clever, sensitive book gives us a new way to think about death, not as the final chapter, but as a window onto life in America.” —New York Times Book Review
The summer before his senior year in college, Greg Melville worked at the cemetery in his hometown, and thanks to hour upon hour of pushing a mower over the grassy acres, he came to realize what a rich story the place told of his town and its history. Thus was born Melville’s lifelong curiosity with how, where, and why we bury and commemorate our dead.
Melville’s Over My Dead Body is a lively (pun intended) and wide-ranging history of cemeteries, places that have mirrored the passing eras in history but have also shaped it. Cemeteries have given birth to landscape architecture and famous parks, as well as influenced architectural styles. They’ve inspired and motivated some of our greatest poets and authors—Emerson, Whitman, Dickinson. They’ve been used as political tools to shift the country’s discourse and as important symbols of the United States’ ambition and reach.
But they are changing and fading. Embalming and burial is incredibly toxic, and while cremations have just recently surpassed burials in popularity, they’re not great for the environment either. Over My Dead Body explores everything—history, sustainability, land use, and more—and what it really means to memorialize.
Locales visited in Over My Dead Body
Shawsheen Cemetery – Bedford, Massachusetts
The 1607 Burial Ground – Historic Jamestowne, Virginia
Burial Hill – Plymouth, Massachusetts
Colonial Jewish Burial Ground – Newport, Rhode Island
Monticello’s African American Graveyard – Charlottesville, Virginia
Mount Auburn Cemetery – Cambridge, Massachusetts
Green-Wood Cemetery – Brooklyn, New York
Laurel Grove Cemetery – Savannah, Georgia
Sleepy Hollow Cemetery – Concord, Massachusetts
Central Park – New York, New York
Gettysburg National Cemetery – Gettysburg, Pennsylvania
Arlington National Cemetery – Arlington, Virginia
Woodlawn Cemetery – Bronx, New York
Boothill Graveyard – Tombhill, Arizona
Forest Lawn Memorial-Park – Glenwood, California
The Chapel of the Chimes – Oakland, California
Hollywood Forever Cemetery – Los Angeles, California
Nature’s Sanctuary – Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Praise for Over My Dead Body: Unearthing the Hidden History of America’s Cemeteries
“Astonishing. . . fascinating . . . powerful . . .Focusing on these particular physical places enables Melville to change how we think about the past, making it a more complete and honest telling . . . This clever, sensitive book gives us a new way to think about death, not as the final chapter, but as a window onto life in America.”
— New York Times Book Review
“[A] fascinating examination of how we treat, and mistreat, our dead . . . Melville has researched, reported and written a powerful book that not only summons us to embrace equitable treatment of all Americans in death but also in life.”
— Associated Press
“Entertaining and illuminating . . . Melville’s wry humor enlivens discussions of arcane yet intriguing historical figures and archaeological discoveries. This colorful study fascinates.”
— Publishers Weekly
“It is this same appreciation for the dead, as well as for history, that drives journalist Greg Melville as he explores America’s cemeteries in Over My Dead Body . . . all with a perfect balance of geeky joy, deep reverence and a meticulous knack for research. Melville’s prose is pure pleasure mixed with wry asides, but even among his most amusing anecdotes, he never loses sight of the gravity that still vibrates through the stories of the dead."
“You hold in your hands a treasure map, a gentle, sly, and poignant presence leading us to places in America and in our lives that have been hiding in plain sight. This tale is about cemeteries, but it’s really about how beautiful is life. We go forward living well by being aware how and where life ends up, so to speak—that’s the amazing, enlightening journey of this book. If you love Ian Frazier, Bill Bryson, or Caroline Alexander, this one’s for you.”
— DOUG STANTON, #1 New York Times bestselling author of 12 Strong
“Melville is an ideal guide, carrying a revealing lantern into both beautiful and disturbing corners of the nation’s undervalued graveyards. At the end of a glorious excursion, he leaves you with a deep appreciation of the rich heritage sleeping just under Americans’ feet. Captivating.”
— DR. LINDSEY FITZHARRIS, New York Times bestselling author of The Facemaker
“Greg Melville is a graveyard connoisseur. In Over My Dead Body, he drags his wry wife and patient kids through rural cemeteries, garden burial grounds, and locked churchyards—not to mention bone vaults and the continent’s busiest city park—while he strips away myths and unearths buried sins, exploring cycles of fashion and need in the American history of mourning.”
— JUDY MELINEK & T.J. MITCHELL, New York Times bestselling authors of Working Stiff, First Cut, and Aftershock
“If every graveyard is a library of compact life stories, this essential book is the grand, sweeping history of American burials: their humble beginnings, surprising (and often controversial) heyday, and questionable future. Greg Melville comes to the subject firsthand and writes with infectious enthusiasm, deep respect, and a healthy dose of wit. You'll dig it.”
— MARK ADAMS, New York Times bestselling author of Turn Right at Machu Picchu
“Witty, warm, and bristling with fascinating history and firsthand details, this book about the places where our bodies return to the earth is essential—no, vital—reading.”
— ROBERT MOOR, New York Times bestselling author of On Trails: An Exploration
“Greg Melville has written a wonderful book about a fascinating piece of Americana that has, for too long, needed a disinterment. Over My Dead Body is, at various times, haunting, thoughtful, and laugh-out-loud hilarious, and is so chock-full of informative ‘who knew?’ moments that the pages almost seem to turn themselves.”
— MONTE BURKE, New York Times bestselling author of Saban and Lords of the Fly
This revelatory book about the places we bury our dead brims with life–from body snatchers to racist policies, religious rituals to digital immortalization. I couldn't put it down.
— ALLISON HOOVER BARTLETT, author of The Man Who Loved Books Too Much: The True Story of a Thief, a Detective, and a World of Literary Obsession
“Author Greg Melville is a great tour-guide as he takes readers on a wide-eyed journey through history of both America and American death. Each of the cemeteries he profiles in his book is different and remarkable, borderline creepy, not gruesome but unusual enough to hold your interest as Melville explains why he chose each cemetery to study before he takes a few side-paths . . .”
— Goshen News