Frighteningly Good Reads: A History of American Cemeteries

Another exciting bookish event to announce, and this one’s happening right now: Frighteningly Good Reads!

The wonderful Molly @ Silver Button Books hosts this ultra-relaxed read-a-thon every October, and it is truly my favorite reading event (it’s also the only one I participate in besides Nonfiction November, so that should tell you everything you need to know!)

Here’s Molly’s description of how you can participate:

I spend my whole month focused on reading spooky books and scary tomes and I invite anyone who wants to do the same to join me. This is the most laid back read-a-thon (can you tell since I forgot to mention it?). If it feels scary to you it counts as a Frighteningly Good Read, so join in however you want to from October 1 – 31st, 2022.

I love a good spooky-scary read, and every year I save up a few for this month to join in with Molly.

This year I have one I’m especially excited about: Over My Dead Body: Unearthing the Hidden History of America’s Cemeteries, by Greg Melville. It is a treasure.

Melville is a writer who’s worn many hats: he opens this exploration of America’s historical cemeteries and burial/memorial culture with a scene from his college job as a gravedigger at Shawsheen Cemetery in his hometown of Bedford, Massachusetts. He’s also been a military officer in Afghanistan, a teacher, and a journalist, and in a plethora of places, and he ties all this into his interest in how cemeteries and burial practices have developed and evolved over time, along with our relationship to the dead, and by extension, to how we want to be remembered.

Graveyards across the country are the time capsules of our communities, recording–and sometimes even shaping–America’s winding forward path. Every cemetery has a story. Yet these treasure troves of Americana are almost completely overlooked in the historical record.

Cemeteries have served as America’s first public art museums and parks. They acted as the first form of free, open religious expression in America. They gave birth to landscape architecture and inspired the layout of Disneyland. They moved our greatest poets and authors–and not just in their written works. Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau undertook the country’s first conservation project by establishing a cemetery in Concord, Massachusetts, to protect a natural area near their homes.

Melville manages to keep this from being overly macabre and instead taps into the universal, like how digital archives are changing our preference for physical resting spaces places of remembrance. I had no idea, for instance, that in the early aughts there were pricey but promising cemetery-affiliated places of “digital immortality” with slideshow repositories of the lives of the dead, but they were torpedoed by the release of the (free) tech startups MySpace and Facebook. Facebook, interestingly, is on track to becoming the largest cemetery in the world, as the number of dead account holders will soon surpass the living.

With a ton of warmth and some truly funny dad jokes (he admits his fondness for this kind of humor, but I really did find this very amusing) Melville profiles over a dozen American cemeteries and burial grounds, including colonial Jamestown, Arlington National Cemetery, New York City’s Green-Wood, Woodlawn, and even Central Park, to segregated cemeteries in Savannah (one made famous by Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil), and Los Angeles’s obsession with sprawling, expensive grandeur and proximity to celebrity. It’s also full of big, gorgeous black-and-white photos that made this an immersive reading experience. (It reminded me a bit in structure of Roadside Religion.)

He emphasizes what’s culturally unique and significant about each location, while brilliantly highlighting the social importance around each. This includes treatment of Native Americans and Native American land and artefacts, the way the unscrupulous Death Industrial Complex has capitalized on dying, but especially egregiously to Black Americans, the erasure from history of the Chinese-Americans who built the railroads and contributed to westward expansion, and cultural explorations like how cemeteries have influenced architecture and landscaping, their roles as nature preserves, and ideas around space, sustainability, politics, and commemoration.

This is funnier than I would’ve imagined possible, respectful, deeply thoughtful, and truly insightful. It’s a tough and weird topic to spend too much time thinking about and not one you might think you’d want to dwell on, but he makes it worth doing. I learned so much from this – it’s one of those that’s packed with interesting (and sometimes horrifying/shocking) trivia (200,000 more people are buried in New York City’s “Cemetery Belt” than the living population of Brooklyn and Queens combined!).

But Melville, who shares just enough of himself, his life, and his own motivations in researching and telling these stories without making this all about him, is such an excellent writer and storyteller that although this is of course heavy subject matter, it’s above all a celebration of life and what matters while we’re here. I’m impressed with how he accomplished that. There’s something about seeing how ideas around preservation and commemoration have evolved over time – how frivolously silly, environmentally damaging, and ungodly expensive they’ve been – that underscores how important it is to leave your mark in other ways while living, that this is what really matters in the end.

An outstanding and unusual work of cultural history, with a few chills as well – perfect reading if you decide to participate in Frighteningly Good Reads this month! Be sure to link up with Molly if you do.

Any spooky reads on your list this month?

Published October 4, 2022 by Abrams. I received a copy courtesy of the publisher for unbiased review.

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17 thoughts on “Frighteningly Good Reads: A History of American Cemeteries

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  1. One of my favorite projects in college, for an anthropology class that randomly chose to fill a history credit, was going to the local cemetery to look at the changes in iconography on head stones. So, the question here is: will this book make it to NonFicNov?

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I’ve always loved walking around cemeteries and looking at gravestones, which I know sounds a bit bleak but they are such interesting places. The town where I live now has an old cemetery that no-one’s been buried in since the 50s, and a local history society does guided walks around it. So I see how this could be a very interesting subject!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. They really are so fascinating! I still remember a tiny little very old one near my grandparents that we used to visit when I was a kid. It was endlessly compelling. The guided walk you mentioned sounds fun, have you gone? I think you’d really like this one, it had a ton of interesting history and stories.


  3. I love your conclusion: “There’s something about seeing how ideas around preservation and commemoration have evolved over time – how frivolously silly, environmentally damaging, and ungodly expensive they’ve been – that underscores how important it is to leave your mark in other ways while living, that this is what really matters in the end.” That’s a worthwhile message! And it must be fascinating to explore how these ideas have evolved through history. Definitely putting this on my list.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. He made that point so well in his own conclusion! It really resonated, I’m glad with you too. This was a fantastic book and so well done for how much he incorporated into it. Hope you enjoy it when you get to it!


  4. I am so thrilled you are participating again this year! I skipped adding this to my TBR and just went and got a copy. I feel like it is a must-read. I can hardly wait to crack into it!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for hosting it – I look forward to it and save up books for it all year!!

      And I am so thrilled I could convince you on this one. I promise it’s so worthwhile – can’t wait to hear what you think of it!!


  5. Wow! It sounds like the author manages to work in a ton of interesting history and big ideas, as well as some fun facts. I’m really amazed by the variety of topics you mention the author getting into and they all sound fascinating. And this does seem like the perfect read for this time of year 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I was amazed by how much he covered as well, and that he tied it all together so successfully. It could have really been a mess of topics but he made it all so relevant and greatly informative too. Really a tricky thing to manage!


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