Immersive Learning: Professor Takes Students on “Anthropology of Death” Tour

December 8, 2022

Many people are scared of cemeteries or at least dislike them. Vincent Melomo has a different view. 

“I am trying to get the students to get students to think about cemeteries differently,” said Melomo, associate professor of Anthropology at William Peace University. “Specifically, I encourage them to work past media depictions of cemeteries as scary, and personal experiences of cemeteries as sad, and to think of them in a sense as museums, or books, that you can look through to learn about the history and culture of a place and people.”

In November, Melomo took students on three Immersive Learning trips to explore downtown Raleigh cemeteries; City Cemetery of Raleigh, Oakwood Cemetery, and Oberlin Cemetery.

William Peace University offers a wide variety of anthropology courses. Melomo’s class, Anthropology of Death, provides students with a broad introductory survey of some of the diversity of behavior and beliefs concerning this most common and significant human experience, death. Melomo’s course focuses on the different understandings and meanings of death in various past and present cultures. 

“The cemetery trips began soon after starting the course and have become a more central aspect of the course in the past few years as we have been developing our focus on immersive learning,” Melomo said. 

The cemetery tours began with WPU’s connection to Raleigh City Cemetery, through the burial of William Peace there, and also Betsy Shaw, a two-time Peace alumna who was involved in preserving the cemetery throughout her life. Oakwood Cemetery was a natural connection as a neighbor to WPU’s campus and as Raleigh’s most prominent cemetery.

Robin Simonton, executive director of History Oakwood, gave WPU students a tour of Oakwood Cemetery. During the tour, she shared the history of many tombs and stories of the lives of a few people buried in Oakwood. In addition, Robin shared that Oakwood is the final resting place of seven North Carolina Governors, two U.S. Secretaries of the Navy, and more than 2,000 veterans.

Ultimately, Melomo wants students to see cemeteries as places to be curious about and to learn. Cemeteries are places for the living as much as the dead. Some cemeteries, such as Oakwood, were created to be spaces for the living, providing park-like space for people to walk, picnic, enjoy nature, and admire the cemetery art.

“I want to fulfill our mission statement by addressing ethical issues related to cemeteries in the present and the past that help [students] to be better citizens. I want them to appreciate the diversity of people that different cemeteries represent,” Melomo said. “I want to prepare them for future careers by meeting people whose work involves preserving historic cemeteries and by letting them know about the different internship opportunities WPU students have had at Oakwood Cemetery. And, finally, I want to encourage them to become lifelong learners by simply enjoying learning outdoors on a beautiful fall day.”