Burying the dead

Tamerlan Tsarnaev hijacked a car and kidnapped the owner but did not kill him.  He died in a shootout with police – maybe from gunshots, maybe from his younger brother running over him.  These are facts.  It is likely he set off at least two explosive devices near the finish line of the Boston Marathon.  Either he or his brother shot a MIT police officer in cold blood.  Does this mean he does not deserve to be buried in his adopted hometown of Cambridge?  Or barring that, somewhere in the Boston area.

We have a long history of abusing the bodies of our enemies.  Antigone wants to bury of the body of her brother, Polyneices.  At the beginning of the play named for her, she tells her sister

…they say he [Creon] has proclaimed to the whole town

that none may bury him and none bewail,

but leave him unwept, untombed, a rich sweet sight

for the hungry birds’ beholding.

Antigone is trying to persuade her sister they should commit what we would call civil disobedience and bury Polyneices anyway.

Achilles dragged the body of Hector behind his chariot for days after the Trojan had killed his best friend, Patroclus.  Achilles finally relents to Hector’s father.  We are told that the gods had kept the body from showing signs of abuse.

Adam Lanza, the Newtown shooter, and Albert DeSalvo perhaps the Boston Strangler, were both buried in private cemeteries.  So was Lee Harvey Oswald.

Massachusetts law gives a cemetery the right to refuse burial, but I haven’t seen any stories that discuss how often this right is invoked.  A number of funeral home directors have spoken out saying that the protests outside the funeral home are not right.  The most interesting comment came from a North Carolina Republican who sponsored legislation to limit protests by groups like Westboro Church.

“The family can have peace and say goodbye to their loved ones without hearing screaming and noise,” says North Carolina Republican state Rep. John Szoka, who sponsored a bill this year to strengthen that state’s ban.

Most Americans find the Westboro protests outrageous because they believe deeply in the right of a family to bury their dead and not be challenged about it, Sloane [David C. Sloane, author of The Last Great Necessity: Cemeteries in American History] says.

That’s what makes the protests in Worcester unusual. Tradition dictates that bodies of even the most heinous criminals be given over to the families to deal with in their private grief.

Regardless of his actions, though, a funeral home is not the appropriate place for such public expression of anger, says Szoka, the North Carolina legislator.

“I’m not really in favor of protesting outside funeral homes, no matter how disgusting the individual or whatever he did,” Szoka says. “There are other venues for that.”

Cemeteries in Massachusetts may have the legal right to refuse, but they should think more about why they exist and what their mission is.  The problem they are thinking of is future vandalism.  Another act that most of those protesting would normally find outrageous.

Protesters outside the funeral home.

Protesters outside the funeral home.

As I understand it, Muslim dead, like Jewish dead need to be buried as soon as possible.  They cannot be cremated.  Quite honestly, I think the statements of all the Massachusetts politicians who have spoken including Representative and Senate candidate Ed Markey, Senate candidate Gabriel Gomez, Mayor Thomas Menino and Governor Deval Patrick have been less than worthy of them.  They are behaving like so many Creons.  The Worcester funeral home director, Peter A. Stefan and the Worcester Police Chief Gary Gemme seem to be the only ones actively and constuctively working toward a solution.

Whether Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s body is buried in another state or sent back to Russia, what is going on is not worthy of Massachusetts.  It is not worthy of “OneBoston.”  We are better than this.

Photograph:  AP

Translation of Antigone: Richmond Lattimore

2 thoughts on “Burying the dead

  1. if their religion is so important then they should not of committed the crime… let them take him back to his home country to be buried.. i agree he should not be buried here…

    • I’m not sure how to reply. Plenty of Christians, Buddhists, Jews, and Muslims commit crimes and would probably say their religion is important to them. We do bury them.

      The lesson of Antigone is that everyone deserves burial. Her brother, Haemon, committed treason. In the end, the gods cursed the king for not permitting burial as the king’s son dies. It is dangerous to make judgements.

      Burial is for the living, who in the case of the Boston Marathon bomber, committed no crime.

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