Royal Oak Burial Park was created by Victoria and Saanich councils in the early 1920s to meet the pressing need for a new cemetery in Greater Victoria. The park, then on East Saanich Road, was officially opened on November 28, 1923, and the first burial occurred two days later.
More than 70,000 people have been buried at Royal Oak, and a further 80,000 have been cremated here.
The cemetery project was started in 1918, when four local councils – Victoria, Saanich, Oak Bay and Esquimalt – set up a committee to find a spot for a new cemetery. Before a site was chosen, Esquimalt and Oak Bay dropped out of the project. Saanich and Victoria carried on.
This early aerial photograph probably dates from the mid 1920s, when only the first three sections were in use
The site finally picked was said to be one of the highest on the Saanich Peninsula, with views of Juan de Fuca Strait. It was described in the Victoria Daily Times and Daily Colonist as resembling a corrugated saucer, with natural drainage to the centre. Ridges and heavy stands of timber meant that most of the burial plots would not be seen from East Saanich Road.
Engineer Frederick Butterfield went to work reshaping the land into a burial park. Through the summer and fall of 1923, three sections were readied. A house for the superintendent was also built; it doubled as the cemetery office for a few years, until a separate office was erected.
From the start, flowers have been placed on graves after burials in the park
The most prominent person buried at Royal Oak in the early years was the premier, “Honest” John Oliver, who died in August 1927. The cortege from the Parliament Buildings to the burial park 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.
In the years that followed, three other premiers joined Oliver at Royal Oak. There are also other politicians, from all three levels of government, as well as artists, writers, business legends, hockey players, accident victims and murderers.
In the tough Depression years of the 1930s, the cemetery board decided to spend $16,000 to build a crematorium and a chapel. That building has become a landmark, as it is considered one of the finest examples of the Art Deco architectural style on Vancouver Island.
In the 1940s, the grounds crew took time out to pose for a photograph
Since the 1930s, the burial park has opened a new section every few years. The first sections followed the original design drafted before the burial park was developed. Later, as the burials moved farther north up the hillside, sections were added with an attempt to remain faithful to the initial vision. The only deviation from the original 1923 plan was the addition of sections devoted to cremated remains.
In the 1980s, the Columbarium Grove offered an above-ground memorial spot for cremated remains. That was followed in 1995 by a mausoleum, a building with above-ground interment spaces.
Since 2000, upright markers have been allowed in new sections. In 2008, the burial park opened the Woodlands, an area for “green” burials. The section is being left in a natural state, with no memorials or gravestones allowed. A common memorial at the entrance lists the people interred there. Trees and shrubs mark plots, and no pesticides are used in grounds maintenance.
The burial park has been expanded several times, taking in land to the north of the original farm. Today, it has about 135 acres, almost double its original size of 80 acres. So far, only about 65 acres have been developed.
Plans call for about 25 acres to remain in a natural state forever. Another 17 acres have been cleared and graded and will be developed as needed.
The burial park features hundreds of trees and shrubs, both natural and planted as part of beautification projects
The original concept – the combination of parkland and cemetery – has been retained at Royal Oak Burial Park. It has become a landmark in Greater Victoria, helping to keep our history and memories close at hand.
More information on the burial park will be found in the book Royal Oak Burial Park: A History and Guide, available at the cemetery office.