Disrespecting the Dead

Benjamin Franklin has been quoted as saying that one can measure a culture’s morals by how they treat the dead. Recent weeks have made many people wonder about our culture, our collective conscience, our ability to show compassion.

Few people get through life unscathed, without experiencing challenges, disappointments, or heartbreak. Too many people experience traumas that threaten to tear away the foundation of their being. It is in those moments that they find the truth of their inner strength. And how they react to the evil done to them, or to the devastation taking place in the world around them, shows their true character.

We saw this demonstrated most clearly in the days following the October 2006 shooting in the Amish West Nickel Mines School, in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. The forgiveness that community offered to the shooter, who killed five students, wounded five others, and then killed himself before the authorities could enter the schoolhouse, continues to astound and inspire.

Our world has seen its share of violence. We know violent people with evil desires and cruel natures. Psychologists and psychiatrists have studied the human mind and discovered many reasons for why we do what we do.

Hitler was abused as a child, as was Charles Manson. It’s difficult to understand exactly why their minds “broke” and they turned into killers, when others who have suffered even worse childhoods overcome the harm done to them and thrive. But we do know that there are psychological reasons for the twists and turns their minds took.

So why, even with our advanced knowledge, here in the 21st century, are we reverting to public degradation, even for the dead? Are we wanting to put the heads of our criminals on spikes by the city gates, for all to see? Or hang the bodies in the town square, letting Mother Nature have her way with them?

We are not ancient Romans, hanging our criminals on crosses on hillsides. We have evolved. We are civilized, are we not? We have a greater understanding of the human psyche. And yet, as evolved, civilized human beings, it took us three weeks to bury a man, because we deemed him unworthy, evil, too much trouble.

As funeral director after funeral director, mortuary after mortuary refused to bury Tamerlan Tsarnaev, his body was left to rot. His family was left to agonize.

Just how unconscionable are we? The excuses seemed valid. We can seem very pragmatic when called upon to explain our behavior. Politicians declared that a local burial would prevent a “return to peaceful life.” The police said, “We just don’t have the manpower to protect the grave from desecration.” The cemeteries said the same thing. The funeral homes would have lost business or suffered vandalism. Peter Stefan, the funeral director whose funeral home housed Tsarnaev’s body, was even threatened for saying he would find a burial site for Tsarnaev, if not in the United States, then in Russia.

Does our hatred run so deep that we cannot even allow our enemy to be buried on the other side of the world? Do we carry so much anger within us that we must turn against anyone who might facilitate such an occurrence?

I wanted to say, “Hey, bury him here. I’ll help guard the grave.” But I live on the opposite end of the country and I didn’t really think anyone would listen to me. Or, maybe I was just too lazy to say anything. Maybe I was a chicken. What would the people in my own community think? Would the s*#t hit the fan here? While the rest of the nation either protested his burial, or remained silent, my lips remained sealed as well.

If you can measure a culture’s morals by how they treat their dead, we have some changes to make. Because as the weeks passed by, as the protests, threats, and drama increased, the good, moral, faithful people of our nation quietly stepped back. Except for a few.

Thank God for the people who did step forward, the people who did speak out. Thank God for their courage.

One man offered a cemetery plot in honor of his late mother who had taught him to love his enemies. Others gathered signatures for a petition calling on funeral homes to accept Tsarnaev’s body. And finally, finally, a woman named Martha Mullen of Richmond, VA, decided that she needed to do something because she, too, had been taught to love her enemies.

With the cooperation of Peter Stefan, the Islamic Funeral Services of Virginia, and Worcester Police, Tamarlan Tsarnaev was finally laid to rest three weeks after his death.

May we learn to care for our dead as these people have so bravely and resolutely taught us.

Only then, will we learn to care for the living.

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Still seeking a world of peace & justice, this minister, mate, and mom - an ordained minister in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), finds great happiness and God's presence in many places: from sandy beaches to the top of a Teton, soup kitchens to used bookstores. Tamalyn embraces the philosophy that "Life is Good," but we have much work to do.

15 thoughts on “Disrespecting the Dead”

  1. And on the other hand – with those we haven’t categorized into the ‘scum of the earth’ category – we suddenly turn the humans into half-angels, aren’t allowed to point out flaws and risk mass hysteria in public. I guess few of us can handle death and the dead.

  2. Thank you for writing about this. I’ve been actively avoiding Boston news (too close to home for my partner, too much for me to deal with) which is not a very adult or mature response to pain. I’m glad that you shared this, I’m glad that things worked out how they should, I’m glad that there are decent people remaining. I hope those who stepped forward have not received too much backlash.

    1. I’m sorry this has impacted you and your partner so personally. But I’m happy if this article helped you in any way.

      And I don’t think it’s immature to avoid the news. We’re so horribly bombarded by the bad news of the world that sometimes we must shield ourselves from some of it in order to maintain our sanity and protect the well being of our souls. We are not created to hear endless stories of heartache. It’s only natural (and smart) to set limits for ourselves.

      1. Thank you! I didn’t mean to make it sound quite so dire – I agree, it’s an important thing to set our own limits, and normally I’m quite good at it, but for things that catch the attention of the nation like this I feel a bit silly. I often joke that if I get any more empathetic my head will explode, but it’s actually true; my partner will turn off the radio if I get a certain look on my face, because it means that I’m about to cry (Bangladesh has been doing it to me a lot lately). But really, thank you for writing about this and for being so kind.

    2. Same here, I tried to avoid all of that too — which was almost impossible because a) I freaking *live* near Boston and b) it was all over the news anyway. (Plus, I’m super sensitive to that kind of stuff, so I knew it wouldn’t be good.) But don’t beat yourself up about it too much; it just means you know that you can only handle so much. Other people just blunder through it all and act like they’re tough and they can take it — and then they wonder why they’re out of sorts later.

  3. Thank you for this. I was baffled about the hubbub around his burial, and wondered if it was because I’m all the way over on the left coast. Maybe I’m so far removed from the tragedy of what happened that the anger isn’t as acute as someone near by. Obviously he decided not to treat others with decency, and to make his point with violence, so I can understand the reaction being to treat him in kind. But, this “head on a steak” reaction is so contrary to the positive rally cries of “Boston Strong!”

    1. As a left-coaster, I, too, wondered if my reaction differed from those closer to the tragedy. But, we’ve seen violence all over this nation and I don’t recall a situation like this ever arising.

      And the venom that has come from people is appalling. The suggestions that people gave for dealing with his corpse should have been far beneath anything any decent human being would ever consider.

    1. I’m with you. I was surprised at how long it took to find a place, but completely unsurprised by various local authorities’ concerns about trouble in their cemeteries. It would be tough to ask your constituents “Hey, can we do the decent thing? It might end up with your cemetery being vandalized/desecrated, but…”

      It’s gross that the sheriff in Caroline County immediately tried to find a reason to disinter Tsarnev, though. I hope the locals can learn to live with the situation.

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