CRANSTON, R.I. (WPRI) — The condemned Roger Williams Park Mausoleum has been fenced off and locked for years, but evidence of trespassers who’ve broken into the sacred space and stolen from the dead is impossible to miss.
At the mausoleum’s once-grand altar, there’s a casket on the floor, lit by glimmers of sunlight beaming through a large stained glass window above.
The casket is open. And it’s empty.
The mausoleum, located off Broad Street just over the Providence line, has long been labeled a health and safety hazard. Now the situation has gotten so bad, it has landed on the desk of Rhode Island’s top lawmaker, House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello.
Mattiello was recently approached by Annette Berarducci, whose family operates two funeral homes in Rhode Island. Berarducci says her family has a plan to remove hundreds of bodies trapped inside the building.
“It has to be addressed, and the sooner the better,” Berarducci said, standing on the property’s front steps. “That’s desecration of human remains.”
A crumbling structure
The Roger Williams Park Mausoleum dates back to the early 20th century. Its original owner, Thomas Cullinan, even received a patent in 1927 for a state-of-the-art drainage system at the newly constructed building. He expected it to last through the ages.
In 2002, Cullinan’s daughter, Catherine Cullinan, was the last person to be laid to rest in the Cranston mausoleum.
Cullinan and her sister, Helen, operated the mausoleum after their father’s death, according to Gregg Mierka, chairman of the Cranston Historical Cemeteries Commission.
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When the sisters passed away, they did not leave money to care for the mausoleum.
The property went into receivership, and its receiver argued the state and the city should be responsible for its care. But neither wanted to claim the property, and in 2012, R.I. Superior Court Judge Michael Silverstein ordered the mausoleum abandoned.
“It’s like kicking the can down the road,” Mierka said. “Eventually the building is going to get so bad, major portions of the building are going to start falling in.”
It’s getting worse
Shortly before the order to abandon was issued, the Berarduccis proposed their first plan to disinter and reinter all of the bodies.
“A lot of these people are veterans, war heroes,” Berarducci said. “They took care of us. We have to take care of them.”
The plan fizzled because there was no funding, and the situation continued to worsen.
“Five to seven years ago, we didn’t have caskets on the ground like that,” Berarducci said.
Over the years, there have been other efforts to remove the bodies, but it was never a large-scale operation and the cost was always borne privately.
Target 12 was there in 2014 when Claire Berkovitz’s father’s remains were rescued from the condemned building.
Soon after, the property was forgotten again.
Story continues below.
Photo Gallery: Inside the condemned mausoleum
Paying for the plan
Court documents say 527 people were laid to rest in the mausoleum, though it’s unclear how many bodies remain inside today.
Previous estimates suggested it would cost $6,000 to disinter and reinter a single body, which would push the total cost past $3 million if nearly all the original graves need to be addressed.
Berarducci said she would need the state and Cranston to provide engineers, laborers, and money in order to carry out her new plan to deal with the mausoleum. She was reluctant to put a price tag on her proposed project, though she said it would not cost millions of dollars.
“We could get started immediately,” she said. “It wouldn’t take very long.”
Berarducci suggested the state could tap into its General Public Assistance Program burial fund, which covers the cost of burials for indigent Rhode Islanders. Payments are capped at $900 per body, and the state pays about $600,000 annually for burials, according to data Target 12 obtained from the R.I. Department of Human Services.
“These are unclaimed bodies like the rest of the unclaimed bodies,” Berarducci suggested. “I think it’s important as a society, as people, to show each other that when we leave this earth that we’re not left here exposed like this.”
Larry Berman, a spokesperson for Mattiello, said the speaker has promised to research the issue and look into potential legal options.
“The mausoleum is not in his district, but as a Cranston Representative, he is interested in trying to help,” Berman wrote in an email to Target 12.
John Psilopolous, a spokesperson for Cranston Mayor Allan Fung, said the city’s only role is to secure the property from trespassers “to the best of our ability.” He expressed skepticism about the latest idea.
“While the Berarducci family has some noble goals to find another resting place for those remaining, they have never produced a plan that the city has asked for to ensure the safe transfer of the bodies that are still there and where they intend to reinter everyone,” Psilopolous said.
Who was laid to rest in the mausoleum?
Even as a plan to disinter and reinter bodies is being discussed, there’s still some mystery about the people laid to rest in the mausoleum.
Though court records indicate 527 bodies were interred, the Cranston Historical Cemeteries Commission provided Target 12 with a list of just 278 names compiled on FindaGrave.com. The commission acknowledges it’s not even close to a complete list.
Such a list may never be found. When the judge declared the mausoleum abandoned, he issued an order to destroy the building’s remaining books and records.
“The judge, the attorneys, nobody really came to a conclusion as to what to do,” Mierka said.
“There’s a lot of people that have a lot of ideas,” he added. “The problem is, who’s going to take it on to make those decisions? At this point, no one knows the answer to that question.”
Whatever happens, Christine Demarco will be watching.
She found her home sweet home next door to the mausoleum.
“To be perfectly honest with you, I bought my house because of the mausoleum,” Demarco said. “I felt a real draw and obligation to do something with it.”
But the vision faded as the building crumbled.
“When they put up the fence, I realized that my dream of somehow rescuing this building had to be put aside,” she said.
Demolition is likely the only outcome.
“It’s a sad ending,” Mierka said.