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Expert: 2 to 4 bodies per grave in state cemetery under Route 37

Target 12

CRANSTON, R.I. (WPRI) — Work is well underway to expand Route 37, the state highway that has nearly 1,000 people buried beneath it.

“You have these individual plot numbers–there’s actually two people in each of them,” said Jay Waller, a senior archaeologist at Public Archaeology Lab. “One grave had four people in it.”

When the remains of 71 people were discovered by the side of Route 37 in 2006, Waller oversaw the excavation process and reburial. Those bodies were just some of the roughly 3,000 poor or mentally ill people buried in State Farm Cemetery in Cranston between 1875 and the early 1900s.

In 1961, the state built Route 37 right through the center of the cemetery.

Target 12 walked with Waller to the site of State Farm Cemetery so the archaeologist could explain whether the R.I. Department of Transportation’s plan to reconstruct and expand parts of Route 37 would impact the people buried there. He also explained where the cemetery starts and ends.

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RIDOT was awarded a $25 million federal grant to rehabilitate Route 37 in 2017, with work now underway.

Waller said there’s been no archaeological verification in parts of the cemetery, which is now overgrown with brush and trees. He said a map from 1887 gives the most accurate depiction of where bodies were buried, but said even that map is incomplete.

Still, Waller said RIDOT’s construction plan has taken into account the cemetery. A review of the plans obtained by Target 12 through a public records request concludes the department “did not identify any intact grave shafts or disinterred human remains” within the limits of the construction zone.

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State Rep. Barbara Ann Fenton-Fung, R-Cranston, said she started visiting the state institution cemeteries n her district after Target 12’s original report.

She said she wants to devote state funds toward erecting signs, building fences, and showing state institution cemeteries more respect.

“I would really like to see either one of the signs or kiosks that family members can come and they can match their family member to the number grave,” Fenton-Fung said.

Fenton-Fung, who was initially concerned about the expansion of Route 37 because of the cemetery’s proximity to the project, said she was reassured by RIDOT’s review.

She also said she recently met with R.I. House Speaker Joe Shekarchi and was given the greenlight to work toward creating a kiosk to help families “properly locate their loved ones.”

Tolly Taylor (ttaylor@wpri.com) is a Target 12 investigative reporter for WPRI 12. Connect with him on Twitter and on Facebook

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