Mr. Harvey to Mr. Seward.
Sir: I had an opportunity yesterday of presenting the subject of your instruction No. 216 to the minister of foreign affairs. With every disposition to respond to your wishes and to apply the most liberal interpretation to the existing laws, he finds insuperable difficulties in conceding the interment of deceased American citizens in Portuguese cemeteries. The Roman Catholic religion is not only established in this country, but from peculiar ties the sovereign is entitled “His Most Faithful Majesty.” All burying grounds of that faith are “consecrated” exclusively as such, and are limited to the use of Catholics. The rule is so rigid under laws still on the statute-book that no church of a different religion may be erected upon any street or highway. This ancient restriction has, however, practically yielded to the necessities of progress and of more enlightened ideas, because there are churches of various denominations in this city and in the kingdom so constructed as to comply with the letter of the law by being retired from the highway, but in which religious exercises are as [Page 694] regularly and openly conducted as in those of the Catholic faith and without the least objection or difficulty.
The restriction in regard to the burial of “Protestants” is one of those traditional prejudices which seem inconsistent with the liberal notions that prevail here, even in respect to other matters of religious belief far more important. because notwithstanding the exceptional ties which formerly bound this kingdom to the See of Rome, very serious differences have occurred between them of late years, and there is a positive tendency to throw off the yoke entirely.
Various governments and sects have acquired ground here and elsewhere in Portuguese jurisdiction for cemeteries; since, even if the privilege of burial was granted without condition, there is an instinct of the human heart which prefers as a resting place in a foreign land that spot which represents the faith to which one was attached when living and the country of one’s birth or adoption. It has heretofore occurred to me, and especially since the city has become the headquarters of the United States squadron for Europe and Africa, with sometimes 3,000 American citizens and sailors in port, that it would be becoming in the government to purchase sufficient ground for an American cemetery. That suggestion was made in the course of my conversation with the minister of foreign affairs, who said that every facility and privilege would be conceded to us that had been granted to any other nation.
The practical question presented by our consul at Madeira, and upon which your instruction to me was predicated, would not be met by a removal of the restriction of interment in Portuguese cemeteries, because it is hardly to be expected that the privilege of burial would in any event be given without cost of some kind. What the consul complains of is the payment of fees for interring a class of American citizens dying abroad without “means to defray their funeral expenses” Foreigners would find that sort of difficulty to exist also in the United States, for while it is true that no harsh rule of exclusion prevails there, it is also true that the cemeteries of the Roman Catholic church are reserved only for persons of that faith, and that while most of the large cities have made humane provision for the burial of persons dying in indigent circumstances, interments cannot be made in any ordinary cemetery without incurring much greater expense than in the case brought to your notice by the consul at Madeira.
It would certainly seem reasonable either that the government should provide a burial ground for its indigent citizens dying abroad in countries where such a restriction as that under consideration exists, or that its consular officers should be authorized to have them interred becomingly at the public expense. I am quite prepared to follow up this matter in any manner that will best accomplish the proper object in view.
I have the honor to be, sir, your obedient servant,
Hon. William H. Seward, Secretary of State, Washington, D. C.