The burial park was officially opened on November 28, 1923, and the first burial occurred two days later. Since then, more than 65,000 people have been buried at Royal Oak, and a further 80,000 have been cremated here.
While the Saanich burial park is not the oldest in Greater Victoria, it is nevertheless rich with history. Its crematorium has received special recognition as well; built for just $16,000 in the 1930s, it is considered to be one of the finest examples of the Art Deco architectural style on Vancouver Island.
But architecture was not the reason for establishing the Royal Oak Burial Park. There was concern that the region’s main cemetery, at Ross Bay, was nearing capacity. As a result, the four local councils set up a committee in 1918 with a simple assignment: Find a spot for a new cemetery.
After considering a variety of locations and enduring a few false starts, including a referendum rejected by Victoria’s voters, Esquimalt and Oak Bay dropped out of the project, leaving Saanich and Victoria to carry on. Even then, it took a change in legislation to allow the two municipalities to work together on the cemetery project.
It turned out that placing a cemetery was a fine art. Several people were keen to sell their land for use as a cemetery, but most of the land was not suitable for the purpose. In some areas, there was strong local opposition to any talk of a cemetery.
In the end, one parcel of land seemed to be perfect — and it was offered to the newly-created cemetery board by a local real estate firm. In short order a deal was signed, and the board put engineer Frederick Butterfield to work reshaping the land into a burial park.
The property was said to be one of the highest on the Saanich Peninsula, with views of the Juan de Fuca Strait. It was described 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. The knolls and depressions would become part of the cemetery design.
Through the summer and fall of 1923, three sections of the new burial park were readied for burials. A house for the superintendent was also built; it doubled as the cemetery office for a few years, until a separate office was erected.
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. And flowers, too — enough to fill five cars. People gathered all along the route to watch the procession go past.
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.
The 1930s were a tough time for the burial park. The Great Depression, sparked by the stock market crash in October 1929, was felt even in the cemetery business. Money was not coming in. By June 1931, for example, the trustees had to contact lawyers for advice on what to do about people falling behind on their bills. Some buyers simply abandoned the graves they had reserved.
The board saved money wherever possible. The superintendent was asked to cut costs. His request for a desk was granted — but he was ordered to pay no more than $9 for it, and to buy it from the Red Cross workshop, which provided work for disabled Great War veterans.
In the depths of the economic downturn, the cemetery board made a tough decision: It would spend $16,000 to build a crematorium and a chapel. It marked a turning point for the burial park. For the first time, it was offering a service that was unique on Vancouver Island.
The crematorium brought plenty of business to Royal Oak Burial Park, and within a few years the cemetery board paid off its debts. Twenty years after it opened, the burial park finally had financial security.
Since the 1930s, the burial park has opened new sections 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 plan was the addition of sections devoted to cremated remains.
After years of steady, predictable development, change came more quickly in the 1980s. It started with the Columbarium Grove, which offered an above-ground memorial spot for cremated remains. That was followed by a mausoleum, a building with above-ground interment spaces.
In 2000, the burial park started allowing upright markers in a new section, and in 2008, it opened a section with an integral water feature, and an area for “green” burials. The section will be left in a natural state, with no memorials or gravestones allowed. A common memorial at the entrance will list the people interred there. Trees and shrubs will be permitted as a way of marking plots, and no pesticides will be 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 where there are steep grades, rocks or fragile eco-systems to remain a natural state forever. Another 17 acres that have been cleared and graded will be developed as the land is needed. Wooded, level areas will be developed in small patches, preserving as many trees as possible.
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.
Royal Oak Burial Park is managed by the Board of Cemetery Trustees of Greater Victoria, a body established by the City of Victoria and the District of Saanich in 1922. The board has six volunteer directors, three from Victoria and three from Saanich. The cemetery is operated as a not-for-profit corporation, receives no tax subsidy from either of its stakeholder municipalities and is 100-per-cent self-financed with all revenues used solely for the benefit of the burial park.
Royal Oak provides perpetual maintenance. A portion of each fee collected for every lot and for every form of memorial is invested into a care fund. The interest covers the cost of the care and maintenance of interment and memorial sites.
The fund is not used for development or capital expenses not related to maintenance. All development, operations and care costs are recovered through fees charged for products and services offered. Royal Oak Burial Park provides services to all persons irrespective of race, colour, religion, or any other categorization.