Bookworm:  ‘Over My Dead Body’ – Missing it would be a grave mistake

Terri Schlichenmeyer

“Over My Dead Body: Unearthing the Hidden history of America’s Cemeteries”

  • By Greg Melville
  • c. 2022, Abrams Press
  • $27, 259 pages

You’ve moved – how many times already? A couple times as a child, a few times in college and a lot more boxes, once or twice in truckloads since then, the average American moves more than 11 times in a lifetime. And then one day, you won’t. As you’ll see in “Over My Dead Body” by Greg Melville, then you’ll have your real, true forever home.

“Over My Dead Body: Unearthing the Hidden history of America’s Cemeteries” by Greg Melville.

Everybody, they say, needs a hobby and Greg Melville’s just happens to be visiting cemeteries. His family knows that every vacation will be wrapped around gravesites, every chance for a run happens to circle around tombstones. While the family complains, Melville studies the grounds upon which so many rest and he thinks about those who are interred.

“Every life holds an epic tale,” he says, “even if no one alive remembers it.”

And since American cemeteries, together, cover more acreage than the size of Delaware, “That’s a lot of stories.”

Cemeteries, as Melville shows, can vary as much as the people in them.

The 1607 Burial Ground in Jamestown, Virginia, for instance, holds barely-marked graves of people that lived four hundred years ago. Some of their bones show evidence of a long, harsh winter that led to acts of unthinkable desperation.

“Over My Dead Body: Unearthing the Hidden history of America’s Cemeteries” author Greg Melville.

The Mount Auburn Cemetery in Massachusetts, Melville says, is an example of a “rural-style” cemetery, and is considered America’s first park. Laurel Grove Cemetery in Savannah was as strictly segregated in death, as its population was in life. Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn had slow beginnings, until it acquired “the remains of a dead celebrity” which, it was hoped, might attract funeral-planning social-climbers. Hart Island near Manhattan, on the other hand, is the final resting place of many unknowns and unclaimed.

There are cemeteries in the U.S. that lie beneath our cities and parking lots. Much of New York City is built over graves, Melville says. Graves aren’t necessarily in the ground anymore; in fact, they may be found in a “virtual graveyard.”

In a way, you can kind of tell that “Over My Dead Body” wants to be a scary book. Instead, it accomplishes so much more.

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. On those, we get a good overview of how our attitudes toward graveyards and cemeteries has changed as much as have the ways we’ve prepare our dead to go in them.

“Over My Dead Body” is the kind of book that makes you want to take a journey similar to Melville’s, if even just locally; if you decide to go big, though, it’s helpful that there are don’t-miss suggestions for monuments and graves embedded in each chapter. Check it out; not doing so could be a grave mistake.

The Bookworm is Terri Schlichenmeyer. She has been reading since she was 3 years old and never goes anywhere without a book. Terri lives on a hill in Wisconsin with two dogs and 11,000 books. Read past columns at marconews.com.