“There’s very little artifice to the American story when you look at how we treat the dead,” according to author and historian Greg Melville ’92.
Story by David Hoyt ‘14 | Photographed by Brian Kaiser
Like many stories involving two Kenyon alumni, this one begins on a gravel path lined by shady trees. But I am not meeting the author Greg Melville ’92 on Middle Path — our springtime rendezvous starts at the entrance to the Kokosing Nature Preserve, the conservation burial ground operated by the Philander Chase Conservancy and established on the outskirts of Gambier in 2015.
Pictured above: Greg Melville ’92 takes in the scenery at the Kenyon Cemetery in March.
It might seem odd to meet someone for the first time in a place better known for final goodbyes — but Melville is an expert on graveyards, and he visited Gambier in March for several events connected to his 2022 book, “Over My Dead Body: Unearthing the Hidden History of America’s Cemeteries,” published by Abrams Books. What better place to talk to him than on an unofficial tour of two burial grounds connected to the past, present and future of our alma mater?
Melville has spent most of his career working as a travel and outdoors journalist, which ultimately inspired him to tackle the topic of cemeteries. “I think of it as a story about land use, and a story about the environment,” he said. “As I went along, I realized that I could tell this story about the American cemetery itself as a protagonist, and how it has evolved, and what it says about us and how burial practices have evolved, and the architecture of cemeteries.”
This is not Melville’s first visit to Kokosing Nature Preserve (KNP), which consists of 23 acres of restored prairies and woodlands located along Quarry Chapel Road; in fact, he knew this turf better than any other area of Gambier. But he remembered it as the Tomahawk Golf Course, back when the grass may have been (unnaturally) greener, but the land use — with frequent watering, fertilizing and mowing — certainly was not.
“I spent many hours on this property when I was an undergrad, just from being a member of the track and cross country team,” Melville said. “We would do countless laps around the golf course, so I’m familiar with every square foot of this place, practically. And so it’s amazing to see what they’ve done, to return it to the natural — the native prairie grass is really remarkable.”
Some folks might be creeped out to see the fairways and putting greens of a golf course replaced by gravesites, which at KNP are unmarked or feature only small, horizontal memorial stones set into the tall grass. And the perceived spookiness of any place inhabited solely by the dead means most living people prefer to avoid cemeteries, and thus overlook the many stories they hold.
“It’s not just the public,” Melville said. “It’s historians who overlook them. It’s environmental scientists who overlook them. There are all of these incredible stories that have largely gone untold or unexamined on how burial grounds reflect who we are and how we treat each other. That’s the intent of the book, to tell people, ‘Hey, you should check this out.’ There are these amazing stories, not only about the people who are in these places, but also about us and our country.”
Melville has been comfortable in cemeteries ever since he got a part-time job, during summers off from Kenyon, digging graves at Shawsheen Cemetery in his hometown of Bedford, Massachusetts — a gig that inspired a lifelong passion. “Over My Dead Body” is a natural outgrowth of Melville’s tendency to tour almost any cemetery he comes across, sometimes needing to sweeten the deal for any accompanying family members who are less eager (Melville has a son and daughter with his wife, Ann Marie Johnson ’94 — who, as a physician, has a professional interest in people staying alive).
“I find that bribery works really well. But not everyone can be bribed with an ice cream cone after going to a cemetery,” Melville said. “Right under our noses, or under our feet, are these amazing places of history that everyone overlooks. And so my book is trying to unlock that in a lot of respects — to get people to see the history and the stories of these time capsules that we overlook.”
The earliest time capsule in Melville’s book is the haphazard graveyard of colonial Jamestown, and he traces the development of cemeteries as they moved away from cramped, densely packed churchyards and into more expansive rural areas, becoming America’s first major city parks. (Today, America’s graveyards take up enough land to cover the entire state of Delaware, where Melville currently resides.) One of these sprawling burial grounds, Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn, was designed in the late 1830s by engineer and landscape architect David Bates Douglass — soon to be selected as Kenyon’s third president in 1841.
“He was actually hired from Greenwood to come to Kenyon,” Melville said. “And part of the reason why, was he was being entrusted to beautify the (campus) because it was a mess, frankly. Livestock ran amok. He designed Middle Path, designed the gates at Middle Path.” Sizing up KNP’s main entrance, which was designed by landscape architect Stephen Christy ’71, Melville continued: “In some ways you have this echo of not only Middle Path, but also this connection to one of the legendary cemetery designers in the country who happened to also be a president of Kenyon.”
Of course, no good deed goes unpunished: According to Melville, “there was so much pushback from (Douglass) bringing order, that (the trustees) fired him without his knowledge, and they ran him out in 1844. He wrote a 40-page response to getting fired, and it’s really fascinating. It’s kind of petty. But at the same time, Kenyon was really petty about it, too.” Melville noted that the only mention of Douglass on campus today is a plaque on the College gates that he designed, “and it doesn’t even really compliment him.”
Green cemeteries are becoming more popular nationwide, and Melville devotes the final chapter of his book to the resurgence of natural burials — free from embalming, elaborate caskets and concrete vaults — as well as high-tech low-car-bon options like alkaline hydrolysis, a sort of water-based cremation. And Kenyon is the first higher education institution in the country to be affiliated with a natural burial ground.
“No other college is doing anything like this, but it kind of provides the possibility for this eternal connection to Kenyon. So that’s pretty remarkable,” Melville said. “In America today, cremation has outpaced burials for people’s afterlife choices. And the burial grounds that are surviving, or still thriving, are the ones that create an emotional connection to the people who choose to have their remains placed there. And because of the transient lifestyle that people have these days, there is no emotional connection to some kind of family burial ground. A college burial ground does give that sense of emotional connection like very few other places would.”
Of course, KNP is just one of several cemeteries in and around Gambier. There’s also the Oak Grove Cemetery on Gaskin Avenue, which was established in 1866 for Village residents once the College’s on-campus cemetery, previously open to all, started getting crowded. And there’s the Quarry Chapel Cemetery just up the road from KNP, which includes Knox County’s dedicated Jewish burial ground (Melville devotes chapter three of his book to Jewish cemeteries, which he calls “America’s first and most enduring public expressions of religious liberty — which makes them targets for intolerance”).
We make our way up the Hill to the Kenyon cemetery, which is nearly as old as Kenyon itself, with the first burial occurring in 1829, just three years after Philander Chase moved the fledgling institution away from his Worthington farm. During the short drive, I ask Melville, who is a Navy veteran with a tour in Afghanistan under his belt, how he reconciles his love of country and expertise in U.S. history with the dark side of that history — the cruel and tragic aspects of our nation that are often swept under the rug of the American dream. Melville certainly does not shy away from these topics in “Over My Dead Body,” devoting chapters to the desecration of Native bodies, burial practices for enslaved workers on Southern plantations, racial segregation that is still apparent in cemeteries today, and more.
“I don’t think looking at something with a critical eye means you can’t love it. To me, it just doesn’t compute why someone wouldn’t want an honest retelling of our history, or an honest examination of it, and why somehow that’s antithetical to being patriotic,” Melville said. “How can we continue to pursue the ideals upon which the country is founded if we aren’t constantly trying to improve who we are, and examining what our flaws are? And that’s the amazing thing about cemeteries; they are so honest. There’s very little artifice to the American story when you look at how we treat the dead.”
We soon find ourselves considerably more than six feet under, as I pull into Kenyon’s brand new West Quad parking garage. As we ascend to the surface via elevator, like Orpheus departing an exceptionally convenient underworld, I warn that the College cemetery will be far different than how Melville had remembered it as a student. When he was an English major, the graves would have truly been on the edge of campus. By the time I was a Kenyon student, it was abutted to the south by the Science Quad, to the east by the music department’s Storer Hall — I found that gazing out at the headstones provided a calming sense of perspective when I was nervously waiting in the hallway before an audition or concert — and, eventually, to the west by the construction of the studio art department’s Horvitz Hall.
But in 2023, with the recent completion of Oden Hall just to the north, the cemetery feels fully surrounded by the life of the campus. “Maybe in that way the people who are buried here would approve, because now they’re more a part of the action,” Melville remarked. “I know I would be.” We begin to stroll through the rows, pointing out interesting monuments along the way.
“The amazing thing, actually, about this burial ground is how humble it is,” Melville said. “The graves are not very ornate except for the one mausoleum in the middle” — belonging to the family of John N. Lewis, a Mount Vernon engineer who received an honorary degree from the College in 1876 — “and it is a fittingly contemplative little burial ground. I think it fits in really well with the tradition of Kenyon. My senior year I definitely gravitated towards here a number of times to check it out, when I started to get a greater appreciation for burial grounds and the stories they tell.”
Just a few of the residents in the College’s cemetery with stories to be told include John Crowe Ransom, founder of the Kenyon Review; Alfred Blake, Kenyon’s very first graduate in 1829; and Kwaku Lebiete, a boy from the Gold Coast who traveled with a missionary family back to Gambier, becoming known as Samuel deWette before dying in 1865 at age 14.
For Melville, though, “It’s not as much about the individual graves,” he said. “I don’t really focus as much on the individual graves as the stories that the burial grounds themselves tell.” As a case in point, he walks over to an unremarkable monument that I had probably passed by a dozen times before without giving it a second thought. While it appears to be made of grayish stone, like most of its neighbors, Melville notes this one was actually metallic.
“For a while, there was this trend of selling nickel grave markers because the engraving would never wear away,” he explained. Indeed, the inscription on this tombstone is much clearer than it would be had it been chiseled into now-weathered stone (although the clever designers had not accounted for the screws loosening, as one of the panels on the four-sided monument had fallen into the hollow space within).
“There were no vaults that were used here,” Melville added, “so you can actually see where people were buried by the depressions in the ground. In a lot of ways, that’s how the new (KNP) burial ground is linked to the old one. A lot of the burials here, you can tell, were using the natural burial methods that Kenyon is going back to now.”
Near the end of our visit, we notice two students with textbooks in hand sharing a picnic blanket near the grave of Lorin Andrews, Kenyon’s sixth president. Andrews was one of Ohio’s earliest volunteers to fight for the Union during the Civil War before unfortunately contracting typhoid fever, returning to Gambier and dying in 1861.
“Cemeteries are intended to be communal spaces where the living are as welcome as the no-longer living,” Melville said. “So I think it’s actually fitting, it’s nice to see a couple of Kenyon students using this space.”
For Melville, the flashiest cemeteries are not always the most interesting. Each chapter in his book focuses on a different cemetery in the U.S., from the 1607 burial ground of Historic Jamestowne, Virginia, to Nature’s Sanctuary in Philadelphia.
“The most meaningful cemetery that I’ve visited is actually the (New Castle County) Potter’s Field in Delaware that I run by, where there aren’t actually any names on any of the markers,” he said. “They’re just these little concrete posts with numbers on them,” Melville said. “A place like that is, to me, more meaningful than a cemetery that has these ornate gravestones or monuments with famous names on them. When I go there, I try and spend a moment contemplating the people buried there — to give them some sort of agency that maybe they didn’t get in life.”
Our tour wraps up as we depart through the quaint iron gate surrounding Kenyon’s Cemetery. Melville is due for a visit with one of his former teachers, Professor Emeritus of Religious Studies Royal Rhodes, who for many years taught Kenyon’s highly popular “Meanings of Death” course. While that particular course was not offered during Melville’s student years, he did take three courses from Rhodes — “more than any other professor at Kenyon,” he recalled. Rhodes also taught Melville’s siblings, Michael Melville ‘88 (who is the parent of current student Sam Melville ’26) and Susanne Melville Kiley ’90.
A few weeks after our visit, I ask Rhodes for his thoughts on his former student’s work. “I heard Greg talk about his book to a packed crowd in Harvard Square with the director of the famous Mount Auburn Cemetery, but it was our conversation in front of another packed group in Brandi Hall that had a special impact on me, as he regaled us with his wit and humor in stories about ‘grave matters,’ ” he said, referring to the talk they gave together in March, titled “Where the Bodies are Buried.”
Rhodes was moved by Melville’s observation that American burial places “are databanks of memory and connection, but also racial and religious segregation, erasure and desecration.”
He shares Melville’s view that “a society’s character is revealed in how it treats its dead,” and said he always told his “Meanings of Death” students that the course was, in fact, about the meanings of life.
Fittingly, “Over My Dead Body” ends with a similar sentiment. “If there’s one lesson I’ve learned, starting with that summer job digging graves at Shawsheen Cemetery through my many tombstone travels,” Melville concludes, “it’s this: What’s most sacred in this world isn’t what happens to our bodies after death, but how and for whom we live our lives.”