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dave obee City's cemeteries tell many tales

By Dave Obee

A crowd started to gather in Royal Oak Burial Park in the early afternoon of Saturday, August 20, 1927. British Columbians wanted to pay their last respects to "Honest" John Oliver, the popular premier who had died in office a few days before.

The funeral procession moved from the parliament building, where his body had been resting, along Government Street to Yates Street, then east to the First United Church for the service. After that, the procession drove north on Quadra Street to East Saanich Road and what the Victoria Daily Times referred to as a "peaceful little burial ground": Royal Oak Burial Park.

It was an impressive sight. The cortege included police chiefs, a band, members of the provincial Executive Council, the lieutenant-governor, the Speaker of the House, members of the provincial parliament, naval and military officers, senators, judges, members of the House of Commons, representatives of other provincial governments, foreign consuls, municipal representatives, war veterans, and interested members of the public. And flowers, too -- enough to fill five cars.

People gathered all along the route to watch the procession go past. The funeral procession arrived at Royal Oak at 5:30 p.m. Rev. W.G. Wilson officiated at the burial service. Rev. James Strachan offered the prayer. Rev. W.L. Clay said the benediction as the casket was lowered into the ground.

Oliver was not only the first premier to be buried in Royal Oak Burial Park, he was a hugely popular one, known as being a man of the people. His choice of Royal Oak over Ross Bay, the cemetery of choice for so many of British Columbia's political leaders, was in keeping with his philosophy about connecting with the common people rather than the elite. The Royal Oak cemetery had been opened in the late fall of 1923. It was the fourth public cemetery set up in the Victoria area since the establishment of Fort Victoria in 1843.

Many earlier burial areas have been discovered throughout the region. Burial cairns were used by the aboriginal peoples who had been living here for hundreds of years. Human bones have been discovered in several areas. Early Indians often left their dead on small islands or suspended in trees. Later, they started burial grounds adjacent to Lime Bay and at Point Hope.

The first cemetery, opened after the Hudson's Bay Company built Fort Victoria in 1843, was just north of the fort, at what is now the southwest corner of Johnson and Douglas streets. The cemetery was for the burial of deceased employees, naval personnel and others, and was shown as "old graveyard" on Lot No. 431 on the first plan of the city, dated July 19, 1858.

The second cemetery was established after commercial development started to push against the borders of the original one. The Johnson Street cemetery was ordered closed, and land was allocated on the church reserve property east of Quadra Street, just north of Christ Church Cathedral. The new cemetery was opened in 1859, with most of the bodies from Johnson Street exhumed and reburied in the Quadra cemetery.

The site for the third cemetery was picked by the City of Victoria, which had been founded in 1862. To follow the Quadra location, the city wanted a larger parcel of land, preferably one not quite so close to downtown.

In 1872 the cemetery board recommended a site in the James Bay area known as Medana's Grove and bounded by Dallas Road, Oswego, Niagara and Menzies streets. Residents were not impressed and the idea faded away. Attention turned instead to the Ross Bay area, east of downtown, and a deal for land there was signed in September.

The first burial in Ross Bay Cemetery was in December, 1872, when Mary Pearse, the wife of Benjamin Pearse, was interred. The cemetery was officially opened in March 1873. At first, about 100 people a year were buried there, but the rate slowly rose to about 500 a year by the 1920s.

The Ross Bay register contains the names of such well-known pioneers as Sir James Douglas, second governor of Vancouver Island, who died in 1877; Sir Matthew Baillie Begbie, the noted judge, who died in 1894; Amor De Cosmos, who founded the British Colonist in 1858, and died in 1897; members of the Dunsmuir family; and many other pioneers of Victoria and elsewhere.

Ross Bay was also used by Chinese immigrants, although they were restricted to less-desirable areas of the cemetery, and were often identified by numerals only. The Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association opened a cemetery at Harling Point, east of Foul Bay, in 1903. Ross Bay Cemetery's location, on the shore of Juan de Fuca Strait, was certainly scenic -- but far from perfect. Its capacity was too small to meet the needs of the growing community; the lower area of the cemetery, close to the water, was at the mercy of the weather.

Soon after the First World War, local councils started looking for another site for a cemetery. Their work culminated in the selection of land adjacent to East Saanich Road -- today's Patricia Bay Highway -- that became Royal Oak Burial Park. More than 65,000 people have been buried at Royal Oak, and another 80,000 people have been cremated there. That compares with 28,000 buried at Ross Bay and 2,000 at the old Quadra Street cemetery.

Posted April 6, 2008


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