Finding my ancestor’s grave in Madeira

Several years ago my aunt told me that one of our cousins had gone to Madeira, maybe fifty or more years ago, and found the grave of my great great great grandfather, Joseph Dundas Miller. For years my bucket list included a trip to the island of Madeira to find his grave for myself and photograph it. That dream came true this month when my daughter and I traveled to the Azores to visit friends. We flew from San Francisco to Boston, Boston to Ponta Delgado in the Azores and then on to Funchal, Madeira, off the coast of Africa, west of Casablanca and north of the Canary Islands.

ImageJoseph Dundas Miller, 1792-1847, was born in Bootle, a suburb of Liverpool. His father, William Miller, was a mercer and draper in Liverpool, and his mother, Mary Spurstow, daughter of George Spurstow and Elizabeth Hayes, was from Chester in Cheshire.

Joseph was a Brazilian shipping merchant, trading between Brazil and England and possibly other ports of call, including Madeira. He and his wife, Elizabeth Tomlinson, lived in Bahia, Brazil, for the first several years of their marriage – the first five of their eight children were born there. In the early 1830s the family moved back to Liverpool and Joseph must have continued traveling to manage his business interests. He was in Madeira when he died on 30 October 1847 and he was buried there in the English Cemetery. He was fifty-five years old.

Until a couple years ago I didn’t know much more than that. Then, making contact with one of the Church Wardens at the English Church in Funchal and she confirmed that Joseph Miller was in the burial record, that he was buried in the English Cemetery nearby but had no tombstone. The cemetery caretaker would help me find the grave.

In digging around, trying to find out all about the cemetery, when it was begun, whether there was a burial register, etc., I found a very interesting bit of history. To the north and east of Funchal lies Ponta do Garajau, a headland with spectacular views and a sheer drop. Tourists can walk a long path to the top, past the huge statue of Christ the Redeemer gazing over the Atlantic Ocean, and continue on to the farthest point. Long ago it was known to the British who lived there as the Brazen Head and, for some of them, it was their last stop on earth. Before the 1770s, local law forbade non-Catholics to be buried on the island. The country was Catholic and the ground was sacred. The British, being mostly non-Catholic, were taken up to the top of this point, after they died, and cast into the sea. If they were rich, they could hire a boat and take the body out to sea for burial. The corpses and coffins were weighted as they went to their final rest.

IMG_7189 copyAbout 1770 the British were finally granted a spot of land where they could bury their dead. Located at 235 Rua de Carreira, in the historic section of Funchal, it is known as the English Cemetery, or the British Cemetery. According to one researcher, not that long ago the cemetery was in disrepair, overgrown and not a place one might want for their last resting spot. But several years ago the cemetery was cleaned up and now it is like a garden that tourists can wander through, a more peaceful, lovely place.

My daughter and I arrived in Funchal on a Wednesday afternoon, dead tired from a long flight, and took a nap. We only had Thursday to visit the administrator for the English Church as the office was closed on Friday and Saturday. So, first thing (after breakfast, of course) on Thursday morning, we took the local bus from our hotel west of the old part of town into Funchal proper. After getting lost and asking directions at a fire department (Bombeiros Municipais do Funchal), we finally found the English Church where we were allowed to look through the parish registers. And there he was! Joseph Miller, abode: Funchal, Late of Bootle near Liverpool, buried 31st October 1847, 55 years. Rev. R.T. Lowe presided at the burial. Many photos were taken!

rua_da_carreira_b We were then directed to the English (or British) Cemetery, a short distance away, where we were told how to find Carlos, the caretaker. Using his extensive records, Carlos was able to find that Joseph Miller was one of the many burials that were unearthed when a road was built along the cemetery on one side – Rua da Carreira. The bones of these individuals were dug up and reinterred within the walls of the cemetery. The tombstones were then placed on the wall.

Rua da Carreira, at left, where Joseph Miller was originally buried.joseph_dundas_miller_gravestone_b

The cemetery was in sections, each surrounded by walls, and we were led to the section where Joseph Dundas was reburied. And there, on the wall, was his tombstone!  He actually had a tombstone and not a grave and the tombstone was in excellent condition.

The inside wall running along the Rua da Carreira showing the many tombstones that had once been on what is now the bricked street. The many walls inside the cemetery are covered with tombstones like this.

IMG_7201 copyNeedless to say, I was thrilled to find his burial site AND his tombstone. The civil records of death, which might have told me how he died, were not available for 1847 and several other years. Joseph’s wife, Elizabeth, died in 1852 and I have not found out yet where she is buried. Their son, William Charles Miller, 1826-1899, was my great great grandfather.

For more on Joseph Dundas Miller and the Miller family of Liverpool, England:

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2 Responses to Finding my ancestor’s grave in Madeira

  1. nitramrekcap says:

    Would you like me to create Find-A-Grave entries as there is only ONE for the English Cemetery?

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