No rest for the dead inside Roger Williams Park Mausoleum
PROVIDENCE, RI – When Gloria Villany-Holland was 6-years-old her father Benjamin Villany died of Tuberculosis. He had fought in World War One, in the expeditionary forces led by General John Pershing. And he attended the peace Treaty of Versailles. But he also volunteered for a military experiment with poison gasses.
After the war, he came home to raise a family. And while the gas experiments weakened him, Villany-Holland remembers her dad as her champion.
"He was very good looking," she says. "Very dapper. Very bright. He spoke several languages. He was sort of a self-made man. I remember walking hand in hand with him. He was a special guy. After all these year you'd think you'd get over him but you don't."
Benjamin Villany died in 1937 with one request: to be buried above ground. He said he didn't want to rest with the worms. So his family put his remains in the Roger Williams Park Mausoleum in Cranston.
"We thought the place would be there for eternity but nothing is forever," she says.
Villany-Holland sits in her Toyota Camry in the gravel parking lot outside the mausoleum. She's too frail to walk around. It's the closest she's been to her father's remains in nearly a decade. She can't get any closer. A chain link fence blocks entry to the building. It's there to protect visitors from the stonework falling off the fa ade and a roof that looks like it's just about to cave-in.
Villany-Holland wants to move her father's remains to the Veteran's Cemetery in Essex, Massachusetts. But the City of Cranston won't let her; they say it's not safe to disturb a mausoleum that's full of asbestos and lead paint. Those words don't do much for Villany-Holland or for her family.
"We want our father's remains. And they're ours. They're not the state's, they're not the city's, they're ours and we want them."
You see, Villany-Holland is 80-years-old. She doesn't have time to wait. And the mausoleum has been in legal limbo for nearly a decade.
"I'm getting closer to my own demise and I think to be closer to his remains would give me some feeling of hope and uh maybe even security."
The thing is her father isn't the only one entombed in the condemned mausoleum. He rests alongside 526 other people.
To understand how these 527 bodies are now stuck in a mausoleum in Cranston is to understand the culture that surrounded death a century ago. Mausoleum founder Thomas Cullen built the structure in 1917 with high hopes for his for-profit venture. During the early 1900's mausoleums were popular status symbols for the dead, and served as monuments for the living. And even back then they were expensive to keep up. Villany-Holland's mother paid Cullen for the perpetual care of the building, but when he died, he left the care to his daughter.
That didn't work out so well.
After she died in 2002, the Superior Court of Rhode Island found she had neglected the building for almost a generation, and left the perpetual care fund nearly empty. A year later, they ordered a law firm to find a solution for all its woes.
Two years later came the fence. The locks. And the safety measures that separate Gloria Villany-Holland from her father.
"Well," says Villany-Holland, "I think I was so young when he died that I was always looking for a father figure. And even though he was dead just coming to visit his gravesite made me have some feel some closeness, some proximity to him And I think it might have been good. My mother was terrific. But I think a girl needs her father."
If anyone can solve Villany-Holland's problem, it's attorney Mark Russo. [sound] His firm specializes in receiverships. It was his firm that took the case back in 2003. They've yet to find a solution.
"What we tried to do first was find a private ownership for the mausoleum," he says. "Refurbish it. Continue to operate it as a mausoleum. So we went that route and didn't get anywhere."
Russo then tried to get someone in the burial industry to take over the mausoleum and turn it into a crematorium, but that fell through.
"Next thing," he says. "Let's get funding to re-inter the bodies, that's rebury them. Demolish the structure And then have a clean slate to develop a new, state of the art mausoleum. And that hasn't gone anywhere.
After eight years off trying to locate a final resting place for these 527 people in his care, Russo is now at the point of giving-up. He says there is no business solution for the mausoleum. So he's taking the city and state to court arguing that it's their responsibility to do something about the condemned structure.
"This is a relatively small project that government can take on that hits each one of use because at some time each one of us at sometime is going to be put in a grave somewhere. The government needs to take this on and be addressed."
But there's a problem with having the state and City of Cranston solve the problem the cost. Removing the remains and demolishing the mausoleum comes with a price tag that could reach 2 million dollars. Even to just make the mausoleum safe enough for relatives to remove their loved ones would take about $50-thousand dollars.
And as Cranston's Mayor Allan Fung says:
"There is no extra money at all. The City of Cranston budget is getting by day to day right now. In the short two-and-a-half years I've been in office we've had to make so many cuts to the daily operations that it is making a difference to operations."
Fung talks about financial problems stacking up in the midst of terrible economic times. That's why he thinks Mark Russo should find another answer.
"Maybe if the receiver sat in my shoes he'd understand," says Fung. "The mausoleum was set-up as a private entity. And the City of Cranston is not set-up to take care of a private firm or private entity. We're not able to bail out private entities like the government bailed out the banks."
I interjected: "But isn't this in some ways different? It's not a bank. It's not a deteriorating building or site. It's a mausoleum filled with 527 previous residents of the area."
"But again," he responds. "The mausoleum is a private entity. At what point in time should the government ever get involved with a private run organization? And in my case, or in my opinion, the taxpayers can't shoulder that load. We have a hard enough time maintaining our own infrastructure, our own public facilities, our own roads "
Now this isn't the first time Cranston's dealt with unclaimed human remains. Back in 2006, heavy rains and erosion near Highway 37 unearthed 71 bodies from unmarked cemetery grounds. That time, the Rhode Island Department of Transportation stepped-in to re-inter the remains. But that happened in a much different economy. Fung says it reminds him of his current economic limitations, and the strain they place on his community.
"The biggest tragedy for me is the families. It really just hits home because many of the families, some of whom we are still in contact with are in the same frustration that I'm discussing now. They're in a holding pattern. Some want to rebury them in another location. That is the saddest part. You want to get them out but you can't."
It's the holding pattern that wears on Gloria Villany-Holland. She's says the court ordeal is two things: Frustrating. And sad.
"My dad has been dead 74 years," she says. "I was six-years-old and I just turned 80. All of this is a heart-wrenching situation I was six. Yeah. Yeah. Anyway. Too much. Forgive me. Too much. It's hard."
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