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An early 20th century mausoleum in Rhode Island, forgotten and crumbling, left to the mercy of the elements and graverobbers.

Cedarbluff Mausoleum

One of the hallways in the abandoned mausoleum | Photo © 2021 Sugarbomb

"You're like a little graveyard fairy, flitting about the headstones and slipping through cracks and crevices like smoke," he tells me. My dear Sunshine has a flare for the dramatic and romanticization. He makes my entrance into the abandoned mausoleum sound far more smooth than it was as I squeezed through the side of a loose window board and carefully stepped down into the dark crypt.

The smell of cold water and dirt greeted me as my eyes adjusted to the darkness to reveal long-wilted flowers, dusty candles and trinkets, and walls of names on marble. Some of the marble faceplates were cracked and fallen and several coffins stuck halfway out of their vaults, in various states of deterioration, rusting from the exposure to the water that occasionally dripped from the ceiling.

Thankfully wet rust and dirt were the only things I could smell – considering how I was surrounded by dozens of dead bodies, it could have been worse. No fresh bodies, living or dead, were supposed to be in this abandoned mausoleum judging by how diligently boarded up all the entrances and windows were, but I've never let that stop me.

Cedarbluff Mausoleum

The mausoleum from outside, even abandoned it's prettier than modern construction | Photo © 2021 Sugarbomb

A crooked and rusting entryway to the cemetery still displays the name of this burial ground and oxidized plates on the concrete columns flanking the entrance reflect the cemetery's age, stating that it was established in the 1840s.

In the early nineteenth century, urban burial grounds located on small plots of land and churchyards within cities were the final resting place for those who had passed on. As cities rapidly grew, these urban cemeteries became unhealthily overcrowded. Graves would often be stacked upon one another or emptied and reused for newer burials. As the cities grew to accommodate the growing population, burial grounds would be paved over or removed in order to make room for new buildings or roads.

In 1847, George N. Briggs acquired farmland near a growing city in Rhode Island and formed a cemetery corporation the following year. Briggs patterned this new cemetery after Laurel Hill in Philadelphia, which had been founded eleven years prior. Far from the busy city and along a tranquil pond, this idyllic setting became typical of suburban cemeteries in the nineteenth century.

Cedarbluff Mausoleum

Some artificial flowers that were left at one of the wall vaults in the mausoleum | Photo © 2021 Sugarbomb

This new style of burial grounds, known as rural cemeteries or garden cemeteries, gained popularity toward the middle of the nineteenth century. These cemeteries were typically built several miles outside of the city and often incorporated elaborate monuments, memorials, and mausoleums into a landscaped park-like setting.

This rural cemetery movement reflected a changing perspective on death in the nineteenth century. In contrast to the puritanical pessimism of earlier burial grounds, these new rural cemeteries often featured images of hope and immortality. Statues and memorials included depictions of cherubs and angels as well as botanical motifs with symbolic significance including ivy representing memory, acorns for life, oak leaves for immortality, and poppies for sleep.

Along with being places for people to lay their loved ones to rest, they were also intended as civic institutions designed for public use. The rural cemetery was a place for the general public to enjoy outdoor recreation amidst art and sculpture previously accessible to only the wealthy.

Cedarbluff Mausoleum

One of the paths flanked by trees leading through the cemetery | Photo © 2021 Sugarbomb

In 1927, 52-year-old building contractor Thomas F. Cullinan erected a three-story granite-faced private mausoleum at the north side of the Cedarbluff Cemetery, despite opposition from the surrounding neighborhood. The mausoleum was designed based on plans by Franklin Hindle and was the first of its kind in the state.

The 60-foot by 66-foot crypt cost $150,000 to construct – equivalent to over $2.6 million nearly a century later in 2024 – and had room for 1,200 plots within the compartmented walls. 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.

Cullinan placed a portion of his profits into a perpetual care fund that was meant to fund the upkeep of the mausoleum, keeping it in good condition for all of those who were entombed there.

Cedarbluff Mausoleum

Some of the vaults have been broken open and caskets completely removed or opened | Photo © 2021 Sugarbomb

After Cullinan died in 1938, his daughters, Helen and Katherine Cullinan took over the management and care of the Cedarbluff Mausoleum. Helen died in 2000 and Katherine in 2002. Katherine Cullinan herself was the last person to be laid to rest in the mausoleum that had been built by her father almost a century before. After the sisters passed away, it was found that they did not leave money for the care of the mausoleum. The state Superior Court found in 2002 that the mausoleum costs had been deferred for over 20 years and that the perpetual care fund was almost exhausted.

A Superior Court judge ordered the mausoleum into receivership in 2003. Receivership is a situation in which an institution or enterprise is held by a receiver – a person that has been given "custodial responsibility for the property of others, including tangible and intangible assets and rights" – especially in cases where a company cannot meet its financial obligations and is said to be insolvent. The receiver in charge of the mausoleum’s future argued the state and the city should be responsible for its care, but neither wanted to claim the property. The lawyer that had been appointed to find a solution to the issue with the defunct mausoleum died in November 2009, leaving the case to his law partner who was also unable to find a workable solution. Finally, a decade after the legal battles over the crypt began, Superior Court Judge Michael Silverstein ordered the mausoleum to be abandoned in 2012.

Cedarbluff Mausoleum

A hallway in the abandoned mausoleum with even the cart that was used to lift caskets left behind | Photo © 2021 Sugarbomb

After the judge condemned the building, the city blocked the transfer of remains from the mausoleum over concerns that the building contains asbestos and lead paint. Estimates suggested it would cost $6,000 to disinter and reinter a single body, which would push the total cost past $3 million if all the original graves were addressed.

Annette Berarducci, whose family operates two funeral homes in the nearby area, stated, "A lot of these people are veterans, war heroes. They took care of us. We have to take care of them." Berarducci has suggested plans to try to solve the issue with the abandoned mausoleum, but the state and city are unwilling to contribute financially. A spokesperson for Mayor Allan Fung, said in July 2019 that the city’s only role is to secure the property from trespassers “to the best of our ability.”

In 2016, funeral director Andrew Correia purchased the J.H. Williams & Company Funeral Home nearby. In the process of renovating the building, Correia came across an old filing cabinet full of paperwork. These old files revealed that the funeral home's founder and his family had been laid to rest in the decaying mausoleum.

Cedarbluff Mausoleum

A wall of vaults in the mausoleum, one of which has been broken open. The casket inside was made of wood and more or less completely destroyed | Photo © 2021 Sugarbomb

'There has to be a mistake. He can’t be in there,' Correia thought. Being in the funeral business, Correia was keenly aware of the condition of the mausoleum. In what he regarded as part rescue mission and part moral obligation, Correia had the five bodies of the Williams family removed from the mausoleum in April 2018. The bodies were re-interred in a nearby cemetery. Workers wore hazmat suits because of the concerns about lead and asbestos within the defunct crypt. The caskets were severely deteriorated; one of the caskets had to be duct taped as the workers removed it from the mausoleum after the bottom gave way from rot.

The condemned Cedarbluff Mausoleum has been fenced off and locked for years, slowly succumbing to the elements, wildlife, trespassers and thieves. At the mausoleum’s once-grand altar, a casket lays haphazardly on the floor. The casket is open. And it’s empty.

People have come into this mausoleum since its abandonment and stolen from the dead, or simply mindlessly vandalized this sacred space. Bronze plaques marking crypts are also missing and the marble faceplates have been cracked and broken. Several caskets are broken open, some from grave robbers or simply from time and decay, and bones can be seen inside, lit by the few spots of sunlight that filter into the old building through gaps in the boarded windows and rotting roof.

Cedarbluff Mausoleum

A casket at the end of one of the halls that's been removed from its vault | Photo © 2021 Sugarbomb

Court documents say 527 people were laid to rest in the mausoleum, though it’s unclear how many bodies remain inside today. Though court records indicate 527 bodies were interred, a list of just 278 names compiled via could be provided by the local Historical Cemeteries Commission. 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 also issued an order to destroy the building’s remaining books and records.

“Now we don’t know who these people are,” funeral director Andrew Correia said. “I don’t know of any records in existence that can show who is in which crypt, and without those plaques, who are these people?”

With the city and the state unable or unwilling to contribute to the respectful reinternment of those entombed in the ill-fated mausoleum, it is up to the families of those in repose there to rescue their deceased relatives from the crumbling building, which will eventually have to be razed.

Cedarbluff Mausoleum

One of the caskets that's been partially pulled from its vault with artificial flowers and a spray bottle labeled "Holy Water" next to it. | Photo © 2021 Sugarbomb

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