Cumberland’s tranquil Japanese and Chinese cemeteries yield intriguing questions and a look back in time

The pretty gravelled pathway divides the Japanese and Chines cemeteries

Over the years and the many places that I have lived and visited, I have frequently found myself wandering through cemeteries, wondering at the histories of the folks buried there. The overgrown churchyard in England that contains the remains of my husband’s grandparents, the fenced gravesites of the Yukon gold rush legends interred at Carcross,YT…dozens of cemeteries visited, hundreds of lives considered. One of the most intriguing burial grounds I have seen, though, is located just outside the tiny village of Cumberland.  In fact, the site contains two cemeteries, those of the Japanese and Chinese communities that played such an integral role in the town’s history, dating back to 1891 when the first Japanese miners arrived in what, in those days, must have seemed like the middle of nowhere.

            The side-by-side sites are located about a mile from the village centre, divided by a long winding gravel pathway, each enclosed by white picket fences.

The assembled grave markers at the Japanese cemetery, with the memorial cairn in their midst

            We visited the cemeteries at the end of a very long, very stormy, very windy winter.  The Japanese side, which is protected by a forest canopy, had suffered the brunt of winter’s nastiness and was strewn with debris from the trees. We were somewhat taken aback by the mess but further investigation revealed that the site is maintained by volunteers, who probably hadn’t ventured out at that point of a very inhospitable  Spring to undertake any cleanup.           

The grouped headstones are scarred due to the work of vandals in the 1940s

Central to the Japanese cemetery is a large cairn surrounded by a cluster of headstones of various shapes and sizes – a puzzling sight for us, further complicated by the fact that virtually none of the 198 almost-obliterated grave sites were marked. A little digging around on the internet revealed that the original grave markers were made of wood which, of course, had weathered and disintegrated over time.

The cemetery was badly vandalized in the 1940s due to the racism that was running rampant in those days. The cairn in the midst of the grouping of headstones commemorates the victims of mine explosions, and the surrounding scarred tombstones appear to be all that was left following the havoc wreaked by the vandals. Most of the markers are engraved with Japanese writing; one or two had swastikas imprinted on them – another surprise that, upon further investigation revealed that the icon, prior to its adoption by the Nazis, was a Chinese symbol of Buddhism and eternity.

Gone, but not forgotten – tokens of remembrance are left in a variety of locations at both cemeteries

In the early 1980s the Japanese site was entirely covered by bushes and trees, so it is obvious that the long, painful rehabilitation is making some progress. More recently a group of anthroplogy students and their professor, with the help of ground-penetrating radar supplied by an engineering firm, have discovered more about the burial sites and where the human remains may actually be located.

The attractive sign that designates the Chinese portion of the cemetery

There is little information available about the Chinese cemetery, which covers two acres purchased in 1897 from the E&N Railway Company. The purchase (for the grand sum of $40) was made by three Chinese businessmen in the community. The conveyance was never actually registered in Victoria, but the original deed now is in safe keeping at the Cumberland museum.

While the Japanese cemetery is protected by a canopy of trees the Chinese side is more open.  Indentations in the grass are, for the most part, the only indication that this is the final resting place of dozens – perhaps hundreds – of Cumberland pioneers. It seems pretty clear that any grave markers used here were made of wood as well, and must have deteriorated into nothingness over the past century. There are a few observable marked grave sites towards the bottom of the Chinese cemetery.

Both the Japanese and Chinese cemeteries have official designations as Canadian heritage sites, and both show indications that the descendents of those buried there continue to visit. Small tokens are left here and there, signifying that while the thousands of Cumberland residents of Oriental descent may be gone, they most certainly aren’t forgotten.

The sign marking the Japanese portion of the cemetery

The cemeteries are located on Union Road, which is accessible off either Cumberland Road or Royston Road.

GPS co-ordinates are:

        Lat. 49.631033478574174 

        Long. -125.00967800617218

        N 49 37.862  W 125 00.581


About Shirley

More years ago than I like to remember, I completed the Journalism program at Vancouver Community College and launched straight into a career as a newspaper reporter (thanks to my journalism professor Nick Russell and an opening at the venerable daily Alberni Valley Times.) My work as a news reporter/feature writer/columnist and ultimately, newspaper and magazine editor, took me to many interesting places and introduced me to hundreds of interesting characters over the years. I loved every minute of it, but burnout caught up with me while I was trying to juggle the simultaneous editing of five trade magazines, and for 27 years I abandoned my keyboard (on a professional basis, at least) and followed my heart in a variety of other careers. In 2010 I returned to the journalistic fold, thanks to the encouragement (nay – nagging!) of my husband. I feel no regret – only great joy to be back at the keyboard, and to be spending time interviewing interesting folks and discovering great places.
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