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.