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Royal Oak Burial Park, resting place for 100,000, marks a century

Royal Oak Burial Park will mark 100 years of operation next month

On a windy day almost a century ago, a few dozen people gathered on a hillside on the east side of East Saanich Road, about half a mile north of the Royal Oak community hall, to dedicate a new municipal cemetery.

Elected officials from Victoria and Saanich, local ministers and special guests, including members of the Royal Oak Women’s Institute, witnessed the end of a lengthy process designed to ease the region’s looming shortage of space to bury the dead.

On that day — Wednesday, Nov. 28, 1923 — Royal Oak Burial Park in Saanich was declared open. Two days later, Florence Mary Johns of Cowichan Bay became the first person buried there.

In the century that followed, the burial park became the final resting place for almost 100,000 people, including five premiers, provincial, federal and municipal politicians, hockey stars, artists, business leaders, decorated war veterans, entertainers and many more. Almost as many people have been cremated at Royal Oak.

When it was opened in 1923, Royal Oak Burial Park was on a gravel road, its 80 acres surrounded by wooded areas and farms. The burial park was expanded several times, so today it is about 135 acres. Twenty-five acres are too rocky, too wet or too steep, so they will remain in a natural state forever.

But a problem is looming. Royal Oak Burial Park will one day run out of room for burials, and with development on three sides and the Pat Bay Highway on the fourth, there is no room for future expansion.

That means a new cemetery will be needed in Greater Victoria. Given the opposition encountered a century ago, when the area’s population was much smaller, it will not be easy to find a suitable location that will be acceptable to its neighbours. Not everyone wants to live next to a cemetery, after all.

The search that led to Royal Oak started 110 years ago, when concerns were raised that Ross Bay Cemetery was running out of space. Over the next decade, more than two dozen possible locations were considered and rejected.

Ross Bay was scenic, but as the location for a cemetery, it was far from perfect. It was too small to meet the needs of the growing community, and the area closest to the water was at the mercy of the weather. After a protective seawall was completed in 1913, Victoria council members started looking for a site for a new cemetery.

The new cemetery might have been in different areas, including Gordon Head, Upper Quadra, Tillicum and even Colwood, based on the suggestions made over the next few years.

In August 1918, the councils of Victoria, Saanich, Oak Bay and Esquimalt, along with the local militia, set up a joint committee to find a site. Victoria council chose land in the Mount Tolmie area of Saanich, but local opposition killed the deal.

In January 1919, Victoria voters rejected a proposal to spend $37,600 on a new cemetery. The lack of a clear plan doomed the plebiscite. Six weeks before the referendum, for example, the city’s preferred choice was a 100-acre parcel on Carey Road, but two weeks before the vote, council reached a tentative deal on 94 acres just south of Mount Douglas.

There were also proposals from private interests, including one for a cemetery close to the north end of Quadra Street, and another for 50 acres in the Blenkinsop Valley, west of Mount Douglas. Saanich council rejected both proposals; councillors said any cemetery in Saanich should be municipally, not privately, owned and operated.

In February 1920, council members from Victoria and Saanich met to discuss cemetery proposals. At their invitation, Oak Bay and Esquimalt councils agreed to work with them.

There was a problem, however — provincial legislation did not allow a cemetery board with representatives from more than one municipality. That hurdle was cleared the following year when the legislature passed the Municipal Cemeteries Act, which had been championed by Victoria MLA Joseph Badenoch Clearihue.

Pressure for a new cemetery was mounting. Thomas Purdey, Victoria’s parks superintendent, told council that Ross Bay had just 635 plots remaining. With 600 deaths a year in Greater Victoria, the pending crunch was undeniable — if Purdey’s calculation was correct.

In May 1921, the inter-municipal committee, made up of members from the four local councils, adopted a draft agreement that called for the involvement of the four municipalities.

The deal lasted just two months. Oak Bay pulled out, saying the operation of the cemetery should be up to the City of Victoria, as well as the municipality where the cemetery would be located — and that would not be Oak Bay. Esquimalt quit as well, citing problems getting information from Victoria and Saanich.

In September, Victoria and Saanich councils reached a tentative deal to have a six-person cemetery board, with three members from each municipality — an arrangement that continues to this day. Saanich and Victoria would also share equally in financial commitments.

The first cemetery trustees were appointed in March 1922, and the next month four of them left on a quick trip to look at new cemeteries in other cities, including Ocean Park in Burnaby, Riverside Memorial in Spokane and Evergreen in Seattle.

Evergreen was designed as a burial park rather than a traditional cemetery. It was designed for the living rather than the dead, with plenty of trees, flowers and lawns, and a ban on upright memorials. It became the model for the new cemetery in Greater Victoria.

The board placed “Cemetery Site Wanted” advertisements in the Daily Colonist and the Victoria Daily Times. Nineteen offers were submitted, and the board rejected all of them, saying the prices were too high.

Board members tried private negotiations with landowners, and their experience in Cadboro Bay gives a hint at the opposition they faced.

Six influential businessmen, including the manager of the Uplands development, wrote to the Colonist to discourage the cemetery board from looking in that area.

“Cadboro Bay — one of Victoria’s greatest assets — is in danger of being converted from a playground into a cemetery,” the letter said. “The $80,000 voted for the purchase of a cemetery site may be used to destroy an asset that could not be bought for ten times the money. How any public trustee could even consider such a scheme for a single moment passes all comprehension — but so it is.

“Out of all the miles of hinterland where the necessary, but gloomy, institution might be established, they must not choose one of our most beautiful playgrounds and dump a city of the dead right down in the very middle of it,” the letter said.

The Royal Victoria Yacht Club, the Canadian Club, and the Victoria and Island Publicity Bureau also appealed to the cemetery board to forget about any plans for Cadboro Bay. Several petitions were raised.

Those concerns, along with the high price being asked for the Cadboro Bay property, convinced the trustees to look elsewhere.

But a solution was at hand. A local real estate company offered the board 84.1 acres in Section 109 of the Lake District — in layman’s terms, on the east side of East Saanich Road, just north of the Saanich Municipal Hall in Royal Oak. The property, surrounded by farmland, was reported to be one of the highest on the Saanich Peninsula, with views of Juan de Fuca Strait.

It had natural drainage, with a small creek that flowed into the Colquitz River. Ridges and heavy stands of timber meant most of the burial plots would not be seen from the road. The knolls and depressions could become part of the cemetery design.

Engineer Frederick Butterfield dug 50 test holes and three test graves, then he gave his blessing to the property. The trustees offered the owners, Henry and Rachel Mycock, $200 an acre pending approval by the District of Saanich and the Provincial Board of Health. The Mycocks accepted, agreeing to sell the property for $16,820.

Once Henry Esson Young, the provincial officer of health, approved the site, the money was delivered to the Mycocks — in cash, with a police escort.

Then, an unusual problem was discovered. The Mycocks had never had legal, direct access to East Saanich Road; they had been crossing land owned by their neighbours. The amount of traffic that a cemetery would generate called for a more formal solution.

In August, trustees bought three-quarters of an acre from John Caven to allow access to the cemetery.

Over the next few months, plans were drawn up regarding the sizes of plots, lengths, frontage, and drainage and irrigation schemes. By the summer of 1923, crews of up to 60 men were reshaping the property, especially the first six acres to be used for burials.

A drainage system was built and the creek was enclosed. Crews used rock from a quarry in the southeast corner of the cemetery property to build a mile and a half of roads 22 feet wide. Electrical lines were strung from Wilkinson Road to the cemetery. All trees had been removed from the first sections to be used for graves.

On Sept. 21, 1923, the cemetery was given its name: Royal Oak Burial Park. It was simple enough; the location was Royal Oak, and the park-like design meant it was a “burial park” rather than a cemetery.

Once the new cemetery was opened and ready for a rush of business — for years, Ross Bay had been reported to be bursting at the seams — that rush never came. It turned out the calculations about Ross Bay had been wrong; it was only about 60 per cent full.

As a result, Royal Oak Burial Park faced serious budget shortfalls for its first 15 years. The opening of its crematorium in 1937 provided a desperately needed financial boost and helped create a strong demand for cremations rather than burials. Today, the cremation rate on Vancouver Island is among the highest in Canada.

That crematorium, built for just $16,000, is one of the finest examples of the Art Deco architectural style on Vancouver Island, and is included on the Saanich Heritage Registry for its significant community heritage value.

The look of the burial park was consistent for decades, but has seen significant changes since the 1980s. A columbarium was added for the above-ground interment of cremated remains, followed by a mausoleum for the above-ground interment of caskets and urns.

There are also memorial paths with individualized markers. Since 2000, upright markers have been encouraged in the new burial areas.

Royal Oak led the nation when it opened the Woodlands, a natural burial section, in 2008. Bodies interred there do not have any added chemicals, and are wrapped in shrouds or clothing made from biodegradable material and put in biodegradable caskets.

This contributes to the growth of native plants and trees that are planted as burial locations are used. There are no individual memorials or gravestones in Woodlands.

The Little Spirits Garden, opened in 2013, is a space for families to commemorate the loss of children through very early death or miscarriage.

A Cross of Sacrifice, one of only 26 in North America, was placed in 2004 just inside the main entrance by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission to mark the final resting places of those who lost their lives as a result of military action or training.

Another military memorial, placed in September, embraces the latest technology. It features a QR code that will allow people with smart phones to get more information about the Last Post Fund.

Dave Obee, the editor and publisher of the Times Colonist, is a member of the Board of Cemetery Trustees of Greater Victoria, and the author of Royal Oak Burial Park: A Century of Service.

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A centennial celebration will be held at Royal Oak Burial Park, 4673 Falaise Drive, from noon to 4 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 7. The event will include light refreshments, music, genealogical assistance, a historical display and self-guided tours.

The most requested graves at Royal Oak? Suffragist Nellie McClung, hockey pioneers Lester and Frank Patrick, and Titanic survivor Mabel Fortune Driscoll.

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