Greg Melville Tells America's History Through its CemeteriesHistorians in the News
tags: urban history, cemeteries
OVER MY DEAD BODY: Unearthing the Hidden History of America’s Cemeteries, by Greg Melville
In April 2020, when the soundtrack of New York City switched between silence and sirens, just outside the bounds of Central Park, refrigerated trucks stored the bodies of victims of Covid-19. To many it seemed jarring for Central Park and its environs to suddenly serve as a repository of remains. But as Greg Melville tells us in “Over My Dead Body: Unearthing the Hidden History of America’s Cemeteries,” this New York landmark has a long tradition as a burial ground.
In 1857, Seneca Village, a “rare haven of Black ownership” stretching from West 82nd to 89th Streets, was seized by the city for the construction of Central Park. The “tightknit community” of laborers and service workers (accounting for “10 percent of the city’s Black voting population”) was uprooted, but the dead they’d buried in the Village’s graveyards were not. As Melville writes, “the park was simply built above them.” He also reports the incredible fact that, today, the park is a legal (and popular!) site for the scattering of ashes. A company called the Living Urn will scatter the cremains of your loved ones, for a fee. Since there is only one active official cemetery in Manhattan (burials below 86th Street were outlawed in 1852), Central Park may be the borough’s most popular final resting place. (The Central Park Conservancy doesn’t know how many people do this, either statistically or anecdotally, a press officer said.)
These are the kinds of astonishing facts revealed in Melville’s fascinating new book. Each of the 17 chapters visits a different cemetery around the country, from the mass graves at Colonial Jamestown to Brooklyn’s elegant Green-Wood cemetery, the racially segregated Laurel Grove Cemetery in Savannah, Ga., to Boothill Cemetery in Tombstone, Ariz., the Hollywood Forever Cemetery and even a digital graveyard, i.e., Facebook.
The subtitle of this book understates its achievement: Through its more notable and lesser-known cemeteries, Melville is telling the history of America from the 1600s to the present. It is a work of cultural and material history — how people were buried and how the living marked death — and a social history: What does the act of memorializing, who is remembered and who is left out, tell us about how people lived, what they valued, and the way we live now?
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