Hundreds of bodies discovered under Rhode Island highway during search for gravesite

National News

Pegee Malcolm, chairwoman of the Rhode Island Advisory Commission on Historical Cemeteries, points to the location of the overgrown unmarked mass grave containing hundreds of bodies.

CRANSTON, R.I. (WPRI) — A Rhode Island woman’s search for her relative’s displaced gravesite led to the discovery of nearly 1,000 people buried beneath a local highway and an unmarked mass grave containing hundreds of bodies.

Both discoveries were connected to state institution cemeteries in Cranston, where more than 5,000 of Rhode Island’s poor, sick or mentally ill residents were buried between 1875 and 1953.

Maria da Graca has been searching for her great-great-grandfather’s final resting place for more than a decade.

WPRI obtained documents showing her relative, Antonio Coelho, was originally buried in State Institution Cemetery No. 3 in 1941. He was then one of 577 bodies the state dug up and reburied in an unmarked mass grave in State Institution Cemetery No. 2 in 1975 to make way for an industrial complex.

“This is an abomination,” da Graca said. “This is really a bad mark on the state of Rhode Island.”

“These people were in their final, eternal resting places, and they were dug up and dumped,” she said.

She said she was told at one point that Coelho was buried in State Farm Cemetery. In the 1960s, the state built Route 37 through part of the cemetery, and da Graca was worried her relative was buried beneath the state highway.

In 2006, human remains were found by the side of Route 37, resulting in 71 people being reburied in State Institution Cemetery No. 2. But Pegee Malcolm, chairwoman of the Rhode Island Advisory Commission on Historical Cemeteries, said that many more people were originally buried under Route 37 and that 800 to 1,000 bodies are still buried under the highway.

According to the R.I. Department of Transportation, tens of thousands of people drive on Route 37 every day. When asked if RIDOT was aware there may be nearly 1,000 people buried under Route 37, spokesperson Charles St. Martin responded: “Yes, RIDOT is aware.”

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