What kind of power do the living have over the dead?
It’s a question that a Massachusetts town answered Sunday, when Cambridge City Manager Robert W. Healy said he would not allow Tamerlan Tsarnaev, the alleged mastermind of the Boston Marathon bombings, to be buried in the local public cemetery.
“The difficult and stressful efforts of the citizens of the City of Cambridge to return to a peaceful life would be adversely effected by the turmoil, protests and widespread media presence at such an internment,” Healy said in a statement emailed to reporters. “The families of loved ones interred in Cambridge Cemetery also deserve to have their deceased family members rest in peace.”
Healy suggested that federal agencies should “take the lead in the burial of this individual” though it’s not clear which agencies would be appropriate for such a task.
Does a city have an ethical responsibility to bury one of its residents, even if that resident is suspected of one of the most heinous crimes in memory?
“I think it’s a tangled ethical issue,” said Joshua Slocum, executive director of the Funeral Consumers Alliance, a Vermont-based nonprofit that describes itself as a Consumer Reports for those seeking funeral services.
“I can empathize with Cambridge not wanting to have this guy buried there. If they do, there are going to be people out there picketing and damn near rioting about this, and I can imagine the lot owners near the burial site would strongly object.
“On the other hand,” he added, “the reality is his body is just a body, and no harm comes to anyone from burying it there.”
Is there a precedent for this kind of refusal?
Slocum was unaware of one, but wondered whether the disposal of the remains of convicted killers Timothy McVeigh, Jeffery Dahmer or Lee Harvey Oswald offered any lessons.
McVeigh and Dahmer were cremated, according to news reports. Oswald is buried in a Fort Worth cemetery called Shannon Rose Hill Memorial Park. A cemetery office worker referred calls to a publicist who did not return a message.
On Sunday, the director of the Worcester funeral home where Tsarnaev’s body is being kept told the Boston Globe that, in addition to being turned away by Cambridge’s public cemetery, four private cemeteries had refused to accept the body. “What does the city want me to do with his body?” asked Peter Stefan, of Graham Putnam & Mahoney Funeral Parlors.
Some individuals had offered private plots in New Hampshire, New Jersey and Ohio, the Globe reported, but the Tsarnaev family’s preference is burial in a “Muslim-designated plot in Massachusetts.”
On Monday, city manager Healy said he would not speak further about his decision. “My participation in multiple interviews that have been requested would create the same disruption that the City deserves to be spared,” he said in an email.
“There is a case to be made that the feds should step up,” said Slocum.
“Local people like Peter Stephan and the city of Cambridge should not be in the position of having to deal with this. That’s not fair, regardless of what you think should happen. I don’t know who in the government could or should take care of it, but they know who they are.”
Although the Muslim tradition is burial, said Slocum, cremation would be the easiest way to resolve the burial problem. “Once the body is reduced to ashes, the family could very discreetly bury them in a place no one knows about.”
If the Tsarnaev family has any human instinct to help assuage the pain its sons have caused, putting the community’s raw emotion above their own is a good place to start.
In fact, it’s the least they can do.
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