Death and Burials in the Azores

  • Azorean Gravestone Project The project is a collaborative effort geared towards systematically photographing and uploading pictures for all cemeteries in the Azores Archipelago. 

Have you ever wondered how burials in the Azores were accomplished down through the years? After all, the islands are a relatively small place and many thousands of people have lived and died there since they were settled. How and where did they bury all these people?

Recently (September 2004) there was some discussion on the Azores mailing list concerning information found in death records from the Azores and burial practices there, as well. I thought the questions, and the responses from some of the list members, would be interesting and informative to anyone that had ancestors from the Azores.

Some might say this is an unpleasant subject, but I don't think it is. It's a part of life, and certainly was part of the reality that our ancestors had to deal with. 

So, with permission from all the people concerned, I am posting this information here.

The original posting

From Susan Vargas Murphy, "I have been working a lot with death records lately from Castelo Branco, Faial. Some of the wording is very interesting and I was wondering if anyone out there knows exactly what it means? Maybe Joao Ventura?

On the death records it often describes what the person wears....sometimes it says a black shroud, or a white shroud. But most often it says they wore a habit of picote....which I see means coarse cloth....and this habit will be of "Sao Francisco" or "Nossa Senhora do Carmo" or of the "Irmadade do Carmo"....Brotherhood of Carmo? Most of the people into the early 1800's were buried in the church. Do you think they were buried in coffins? Does anyone know the significance of these clothes they wore?

Then it usually will say that they are accompanied by the Irmadade das Almas....Brotherhood of Souls and "o Colegio" and "Cruzes"......crosses? What does this this symbolic ...that they are joining other departed souls?? if so, then what are the Colegio and Cruzes?

It will say that a family member is obligated to have said a certain number of masses. Does this mean that the person left money for that to give to the priest? Or does it mean that the person who is obligated should attend that number of masses? I ask this as so often it would say that they were poor and did not leave a testament, but then there will be someone who is obigated to have the masses said. Sometimes the masses are "rezadas" and sometimes "oficio" and I don't know what that means. I have seen a couple that say there was "cantoria" I assume there was singing? Almost ALWAYS they were buried the next day after death. I have found very few exceptions to this and in those cases, the person seemed to have accidental deaths and probably were not found right had drowned and others were found on the rocks.

I wonder how ALL these people could have been buried in the church?? I would think it would create quite an odor at times? I have heard that in the Azores they used to put "lime" on the bodies to help the decomposition. I know in the last century, when the burials were in cemeteries and no longer in the churches, I have heard that they dug up the bodies after a certain number of years? Maybe seven? And then the bones are put in a bone collection crypt??

I know this is a macabre subject, but I have been working with these records for so long that this questions keep cropping up! I would appreciate anyones knowledge on this.

Thank you!

Susan Vargas Murphy"

Responses from list members:

From Eloise Cadinha

"Correct..Lime was used to help the decomposition when bodies were buried in the church. In the older death records there are descriptions as to just exactly where the body was buried. In front of the pulpit; on the gospel side near the altar of ...; buried in the grave of his grandmother, Catarina Jacome, near the gate of the chapel of ...

And yes in the cemeteries the bodies were dug up after about 7 years, unless one paid for another extension. Some families had mausoleums, and there, too .the bodies were removed after so many deaths to make room for the recent arrival.

When the bones were removed from the grave they were place in an ossuary. Some families had them placed in a marble container. I ame across some of these marble containers in the cemeteries. In Sao Bartolomeu, Terceira, one of the containers was partly broken, and I partly pushed it aside and there was the skull staring up at me.


From John Miranda Raposo

"In another, more pious age, our Azorean ancestors worried a lot about their eternal salvation and the peril to their immortal souls. Thus they usually engaged in pious acts and rituals in an attempt to mitigate the suffering that a soul in purgatory would have to under go before achieving Paradise. Many of the Villages had lay orders and brotherhoods. The "Carmos" and "Franciscanos" were the Franciscan and Carmelite lay orders. When their members died, they were buried in the habits of Franciscan and Carmelites. Thus "foi enterrado no hábito de S. Francisco..." The brotherhoods, such as the Irmandade das Almas, (The Brotherhood of the Poor Souls) existed so that the brotherhood arranged to (1) accompany the deceased to burial, (2) arrange for masses to be offered annually for the repose of deceased members and (3) living members would pray for the repose of the deceased members. The Irmandade dos Caixões, (the Brotherhood of the Coffins) was a predecessor to the "Benevolent Associations" whereby one prepaid one's funeral; i.e., you paid your annual dues and when you died you were supplied with a coffin.

As for the obligation of the family to have a certain number of masses offered for the repose of the deceased, that was a testamentary obligation. In other words, the deceased left his estate to his children on condition that they arranged for a certain numbers of Masses to be offered for the repose of the testator's soul. You can usually tell how well off someone was by the number of Masses they arranged for themselves.

The "Ofício" is the Office or Divine Liturgy, the prayers that every priest is still required to say daily, morning, noon, evening and night. A priest could recite the Office for the Dead, or offer his daily office, for the repose of the deceased.

"Cantoria" would mean a sung high Mass (those of us born before Vatican II know what that means: the priest sang the Mass as opposed to mumbling it in Latin).

Until the time of the Marquês de Pombal, the deceased were interred beneath the floors of the parish church. Prominent families had reserved graves; thus someone might be buried in his grandfather's grave, beneath the chapel of Our Lady of Sorrows, etc. (It is a wonderful way to research dead ends; i.e. you can't find s birth or marriage record but you find a death records that says the deceased was buried in the grave of her grandfather, Afonso Ledo). After 7 years, the graves were recycled. Lime was used liberally to assist in decomposition. In village cemeteries today, graves are still recycled and lime is still liberally applied. The adage "já levou a sua camada de cal." (He' s gotten his dose of lime.) is a way of saying that someone has died and is already buried.

As for shrouds, the saddest example I have is that of an ancestor whom the neighbors "wrapped in the sheet on which she died because she was so poor she had no clothes in which to be laid out." I can only hope those same compassionate neighbors said a Pater and an Ave for the repose of her soul and remembered her at Mass.

The subject may be morbid, but perfectly natural. On my trips to S. Miguel I always walk the Cemetery of S. Joaquim in Ponta Delgada. Sometimes I see an exhumation, i.e. the removal of some bones into an ossuary and I've been greeted by more than one smile (or grimace) of a skull inadvertently left exposed in an open grave. I'll bet Susan Vargas Murphy asked questions that many people have but have been too afraid to ask. And many thanks to Eloise Cadinha for opening the door.

John Miranda Raposo"

From Joao Ventura

"In the Azores people are buried in cemeteries, i.e, outside the church in the early 1830's. It depends on the village. To be accurate on that I would suggest to check each death record in that time frame and see where they were buried: inside the church or in the cemetery. Records up to the early 1700's are richer in giving details about the graves (their location and the owner) and causes of death, specially accidents.

Lime was used to help decomposition of the bodies, but also as a means of disinfestation.

I think there were no coffins when they were buried inside the churches, also graves were used almost every year. As some of you know I have done the genealogy of 3 villages and for the 1600's I was really careful with death records, trying to find leads on previous generations: someone that was buried in his grandmother's grave, whose name is mentioned. In São Sebastião the priest doesn't say how they were related, but said to whom the grave belonged. Example: was buried in the grave of Beatriz Camela. Going through all the records, we can find the same name, which means that the same grave was used often. In Ribeirinha two women died and each was buried in two graves! Also there, in times of plague, people were buried in the church yard, because there was no room inside the church.

According to what I have found in Terceira, people only have masses for their souls, when there is a will, whereas in Pico and Faial the priest decides the amount of masses should be prayed, according to one's wealth. Those who made wills, usually left one third of their properties to the church, so they could have a certain number of masses per year "while the world lasts" (this is the expression most people used). Marquês de Pombal was the first that tried to abolish this, but it was the Liberal Revolution of the 1820's and 1830's that stop this.

I think the other questions have been answered, in any case I am open to new questions, in case I know the answers!

João Ventura 


© Kathy Andrade Cardoza 2022