Religious Partitions at Ross Bay Cemetery
When the cemetery was originally planned, the Cemetery Trustees intended it to be open to all for burials without restrictions. However, strong pressure from the Anglican and Roman Catholic churches in town forced the trustees to reserve portions of the grounds for burials by specific denominations. Sections were reserved for the Church of England (Anglican), the Roman Catholic Church, the Presbyterian Church, the Wesleyan Methodist Church and later the Reformed Episcopal Church. This resulted in only 10% of the entire site being available for use by the general public.
Several years later, in 1876, public outcry over the lack of plots for the general public resulted in an investigation. It concluded that the government never intended Ross Bay Cemetery to be divided up between the churches. This led to the passing of a bylaw in 1879. The law required the churches who wished to control their parts of the cemetery to pay $300 per acre to the city within six months. This was the same amount that the city had originally paid for the land in 1872. Only the Church of England (Anglican), the Roman Catholic Church and the Presbyterian Church paid for their land, and so the rest was opened up for the public, to be administered by the Cemetery Board of the City of Victoria.
Ross Bay Cemetery Potters Field In Ross Bay Cemetery, the city had always used the lower part of Section F as a Potter’s Field, mostly for people who were destitute, people of unknown identity, still-born babies and convicts. A Potter’s Field is a place in a cemetery (or even a separate cemetery) where people are buried who have no one to take care of their funeral or no money to do so themselves. They are usually buried in plain coffins with no markers over their graves.
One of the most famous people in Potter’s Field is William “Billy” Barker. After making the biggest strike of the Cariboo Gold Rush he died in 1894 in poverty at the Old Men’s Home in Victoria and was buried in an unmarked grave. Barkerville, the gold rush boom town named after him, became a famous Gold Rush historic site and in 1962 a bronze plaque was set flat in the grass to mark his grave site. In September of 2008 Billy got a new grave marker. A 900 kilogram boulder pulled up 15 metres from the shaft of his Williams Creek mine has been positioned at his gravesite.
No one knows for certain where the name “Potter’s Field” came from. Christians refer to the story in Matthew 27:7 in the New Testament of the Bible, in which Jewish priests take 30 pieces of silver returned by a repentant Judas. “The chief priests picked up the coins and said, ‘It is against the law to put this into the treasury, since it is blood money.’ So they decided to use the money to buy the potter’s field as a burial place for foreigners. That is why it has been called the Field of Blood to this day.” The traditional site of this is in the valley of Hinnom, which was a source of potter’s clay. This led to the term Potter’s Field being used for any land that was worthless for growing food, or cheap land without a good purpose. Thus, the land in Ross Bay Cemetery that was lower down towards the water than the rest of the cemetery was less desirable.
Non-Christians were buried in the southwestern corner of the cemetery. This land was so close to the ocean that winter storms sometimes washed away graves. Chinese and Japanese Buddhists and First Nations people who had not converted to Christianity were buried in this section.
Diversity at Ross Bay Cemetery
People of many religions, countries and roles are buried at RBC. There are Roman Catholics and Protestants, Veterans, Asians, Blacks and First Nations peoples. Burials of Black people were not segregated to a particular area of RBC, but were integrated, usually according to religion. Two religious groups that have large populations in Victoria but no burials in Ross Bay Cemetery are Jews and Sikhs. In 1859, the Jewish Congregation Emmanu-El purchased its own burial ground, which is still in use (the longest continually used cemetery in BC). Sikhs traditionally have cremated their dead, first on open funeral pyres (some in RBC), but later in indoor crematoria. The ashes should be scattered on flowing water, not buried, so there are no Sikh graves at RBC.