There’s a straight line between Greg Melville’s summer job at Bedford over 30 years ago and the release of his latest book this week.
Above My Corpse: Uncovering the Hidden History of American Cemeteries focuses on 18 cemeteries in the United States from an architectural, political, and literary perspective.
“Before my senior year of college, I worked for the Department of Public Works,” said Melville, a 1988 Bedford High School graduate. Shawsheen, and sometimes we helped prepare a grave. “
“Since then, I’ve had this interest in cemeteries and the stories they tell.”
There are some 150,000 cemeteries and cemeteries nationwide, Melville said. “Every single person who drives to work every day drives past cemeteries without even thinking about it.”
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 the story of the United States unfolds: from Jamestown, VA, to Plymouth, MA, to Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Concord, etc
The book, which is dedicated to Melville’s parents, Joan and David, is published by Abrams Books.
Melville earned her undergraduate degree from Kenyon College in Ohio and a master’s degree in journalism from Pennsylvania State. He started 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 US Navy Reserve – aged 39. He said he attended an abbreviated officers’ school through his specialty as a writer and became a naval public affairs officer.
“I’ve always wanted to serve,” Melville said. “It allowed me to use my expertise in a way to serve. Most writers who are alone have a side gig – and the Navy was a good side gig.
Melville was deployed to Afghanistan in 2013 for much of the year as a spokesperson. He remains in the Naval Reserve and has been teaching English at the US Naval Academy since 2017.
He said he wrote On my corpse “More from the point of view of a journalist than a historian. It’s not about individuals buried there, but about the stories these cemeteries tell as a whole.
“Cemeteries were our first urban parks. This is where landscape architecture was born,” Melville explained. “They were our first public art museums. Disneyland’s layout was inspired by a cemetery.
“Cemeteries have always been closely linked to our history, often shaping it. Yet these story capsules are still overlooked,” he continued. “That’s what the book is about: revealing those time capsules that are everywhere.”
Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, writes Melville, was the country’s first urban park, founded in 1831. It was a radical concept for its time, because “nature was seen as something to be used, not preserved. The organizers found land where they could develop and create this new form of cemetery different from cemeteries.
Shawsheen Cemetery, established in 1949, was modeled after Mount Auburn.
Sleepy Hollow, near Route 62, was founded in 1855 specifically for preservation, Melville says. “It was actually the first conservation project in the country, led by Ralph Waldo Emerson, to preserve a forest just outside the city center that was in danger of being clearcut.”
At that time, he continues, “people weren’t embalmed. There was nothing abnormal in the ground, so the idea of using a cemetery as a conservation area was not so far-fetched.
Embalming, he continued, was a practice that began during the Civil War, when bodies were shipped from distant battlefields to be buried. “A funeral industry sprung up 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 into each of the graveyards,” Melville said. “Each shapes or reflects American history of that period. It ends in 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 will end up being wooded.
Melville will discuss the book with Matthew Stephens, 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 first came to the Naval Academy, doing research and taking the first steps in writing,” Melville recounted. It’s not his first book – he co-wrote a travel guide around 2007 and the following year wrote bold rider, which he says is about “an old Mercedes station wagon powered by french fry grease. We crossed the country with it.
Melville and his wife have two children. They live in Delaware.