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Editorial: Everyone’s Rite; Tsarnaev Deserved a Decent Burial

Ultimately, the burial of Tamerlan Tsarnaev will be nothing more than a footnote to the Boston Marathon bombing and its aftermath. But as attentive readers know, footnotes sometimes tell a story of their own, one slightly different from the main narrative.

Much has been made, and justly so, of the courage and selflessness of those grievously injured in the terrorist attack and of those who responded to help, both at the scene and afterward. Similarly, the resilience of the city itself has been celebrated, again with good reason.

But circumstances surrounding the interment of Tsarnaev, the older of the two brothers suspected of carrying out the deadly bombing on April 15, provide an ugly counterpoint to that story.

After Tsarnaev was killed in a shootout with police, his body was claimed by an uncle, Ruslan Tsarni, and transported to Graham Putnam and Mahoney Funeral Parlors in Worcester, Mass. There it remained in limbo for nearly a week while the funeral director, Peter Stefan, struggled to find a place to bury him.

Boston declined, as did Cambridge, where Tsarnaev lived. The Cambridge city manager cited fears of turmoil and unrest if he were interred there. Cemeteries far and near refused. The dead man’s mother requested that his body be sent to Russia, but Stefan said he could not ensure that the authorities would accept it for burial. Many private offers were brought forward, including one from Hartford resident Paul Keane, who noted that his Sunday-school-teaching mother had instructed him to “love thine enemy.” But many of these offers did not work out because relevant local officials did not want the body, either. A law professor in Boston described the situation as without precedent, and a legal no-man’s land.

Eventually it was disclosed that through the intervention of a woman who cited the same Christian precept as Keane, the body had been quietly buried in a small cemetery run by Islamic Funeral Services of Virginia, which issued a statement saying that, “We strongly disagree with his violent actions, but that does not release us from our obligation to return his body to the earth.” No sooner was the burial site disclosed than the county administrator there weighed in to affirm that he had not been consulted and suggested that he disapproved.

The heinousness of Tsarnaev’s alleged acts has no bearing on whether he ought to receive a decent burial. That’s a given in a civilized society. As Worcester’s police chief said in the midst of this unhappy saga: “We are not barbarians. We bury the dead.” Stefan, the funeral director, was more matter-of-fact but no less eloquent on the subject amid protests aimed at his decision to accept the body in the first place: “We take an oath to do this. Can I pick and choose? No. Can I separate the sin from the sinner? No. We are burying a dead body. That’s what we do.”

Exactly. To point out the obvious, lots of notorious people who have done dreadful things are buried in cemeteries throughout the nation. Proper burial of the dead is a concern that stretches back to the dawn of Western civilization, and figures prominently in the works of the ancient Greeks, as Daniel Mendelsohn of The New Yorker recently pointed out. The unprecedented rejection of this man’s body reminds us of something we should have learned after 9/11: It’s not so much what terrorists do to us, it’s what we do to ourselves. Ignoring the dictates of our common humanity is not the way to answer the inhumanity of those who do us harm.