It was the right thing to do.
That’s what both parties are saying now that they’ve come to an agreement.
This story is about a historic promise to the descendants of Chilliwack pioneer William Prest, pledging they’d have a final resting place set aside for them near their kin in the cemetery atop Little Mountain.
William Prest, originally from Yorkshire, England, married Mary “Tata” Benn of what is now Sqwah First Nation. The Prests settled near what would later be named Prest Road, at the foot of Little Mountain, and had 11 children.
Prest acquired 177 acres of land up on Little Mountain in 1885 by way of a Crown grant, where their daughter, Susan, had been buried the year before.
The unwritten part of that land deal, somehow lost in time, was that a portion of the Prest property donated to the church for the Anglican cemetery would be reserved for Prest relatives with direct lineage in perpetuity.
That promise was formally recognized, with a signing ceremony on Sept. 5, and a memorandum of understanding (MOU), inked by Prest family reps and Chilliwack Cemeteries.
It’s a tricky situation the family had been trying to resolve with different cemetery owners. Since there was no written evidence of the agreement, church officials wouldn’t honour it.
The new agreement reached with Chilliwack Cemeteries, which purchased the cemetery from the Anglican Diocese, transports the Prest family and the many lineal descendants from a situation of “grave uncertainty” into a long-awaited “reality.”
“This has been a 25-year discussion about finding a place for our family to be buried near our relatives,” said William Prest’s great-grandson, Gordon Prest.
The gravesites of his father, grandfather and great-grandfather are all near each other on the hill. So the evidence of that ancient promise was in the ground all along.
“We came to a conclusion with the signing at this point and time. As a family we’re very happy.”
|The group photo of Prest family descendants at the MOU signing in the Prest section of the Chilliwack Cemetery now set aside for their kin. (Jennifer Feinberg/ The Progress).|
There were stories, drumming, singing, laughter and prayers during the signing ceremony, and some said they felt the presence of ancestors.
Bonny Graham, whose uncle Ben Prest was on the negotiating team, was thrilled to be part of the special day as a future Prest family rep.
“I had the pleasure to witness and be part of this historic event,” she wrote online. “As I stood beside my mom’s resting place I felt her pride and happiness to see this acknowledgement of the Prest land and wishes of my great-grandfather William Prest.”
About 25 family members directly descended from Prest attended the signing, and then a luncheon in Chilliwack.
“I can’t thank Gordon Prest enough,” said Gordon Wintrup, president of Chilliwack Cemeteries, about the negotiating process that led to the MOU.
“Within a handful of meetings over several months, we managed to come to an agreement.”
The agreement means Prest descendants will not be charged for a burial plot. They’ll pay for any services, like opening and closing the plots, but not the land.
“That was the main bone of contention,” Wintrup noted, gleaned from files kept from the previous owners, the Anglican Diocese of New Westminster.
He said no one among the former church ownership, most of whom were church volunteers, felt they could honour the Prest family agreement.
But they will from here on in.
“It amazes me why it took so long,” said Wintrup.
Both parties agreed there was some form of intent or verbal agreement in place historically for the Prest family to be buried on the top level of the cemetery, but there was no evidence.
“Common sense prevailed,” said Wintrup. “All these poor people wanted was to be buried with their family. We found a way to do that.”
They reached a compromise that all parties could live with, and one that addresses the original intent.
There are anywhere from an estimated 50 to 1000 spaces available in the cemetery for the future. They will use the pathways and open spaces between the rows of gravestones.
The pathways are larger in the heritage area than elsewhere because the upper section had to be accessed by horse and wagon to transport the caskets, and it needed to be wider than today so they could turn around.
“This is a special day for the Prest family,” said Rick Prest at the signing.
“This puts some closure to it. It’s a happy day.”