Watching the news this week of cemeteries refusing to accept the body of suspected Boston Marathon bomber Tamerlan Tsarnaev and protestors descending upon the Worcester, Mass., funeral home where it's been held, the Rev. Don Marxhausen was disgusted.
"Funerals are for the living, not the dead," said Marxhausen, pastor of Zion Lutheran Church in Idaho Springs, Colo. "There are always going to be haters, people that are immature and want to get revenge after death, but they are missing the point of comforting a family."
As the pastor who presided over the funeral service for Dylan Klebold, one of the two Columbine High School shooters who killed 13 people and injured 24 others in 1999, the controversy over Tsarnaev's death rites brings up complex questions for Marxhausen, as it does for the funeral directors and cemetery operators who work with families of the dead.
Do suspected killers deserve a funeral and burial? Do rituals after death necessarily honor the dead and their actions, or are they simply a way take care of a dead body and offer a service to the person's family? If, as in Tsarnaev's case, the person was born in a different country where his parents currently live, should his burial be there?
"There is no precedence for this in this area," said David Boyle, president of the Massachusetts Cemetery Association, who has been thrust into the national spotlight since Tsarnaev's body arrived early Friday at Graham, Putnam & Mahoney Funeral Parlors in Worcester, Mass. Since then, every cemetery that's been contacted in Massachusetts and several other states have refused to allow a burial for Tsarnaev.
"I have no right to comment on any individual cemetery, but it's safe to say this kind of burial begins with the family," Boyle said. "In other parts of the country when these situations have risen, it's been done quietly and in private."
Peter Stefan, the funeral director who has possession of the body, said at a news conference Monday that he had "done all I can do," including a ritual Islamic body washing, and that "the ideal situation" would be to get the body to Russia after having no luck in the U.S. Stefan, who has been holding the body on behalf of Tsarnaev's uncle, Ruslan Tsarni, who lives in Maryland, said it makes Americans "look bad" that no cemeteries are open to burial.
The conflict over what to do with Tsarnaev's body is unusual for a high-profile case, said experts in funeral and cemetery traditions. In December, the body of Adam Lanza, the Newtown, Conn., elementary school shooter, was claimed by his father for undisclosed "private arrangements" with little media coverage. In 2007, the body of Virginia Tech shooter Seung-Hui Cho was buried at a secret grave in Fairfax County, Va., by his family. In the case of Klebold, Marxhausen said the body was cremated, and he is unsure what happened to the ashes. After his execution, Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh had his ashes scattered in an undisclosed location. Lee Harvey Oswald, who assassinated President John F. Kennedy in 1963, is buried near Dallas.
Brad White, who runs Boston-based New England Burials At Sea and does at-sea ash scatterings and full-body burials for Stefan's funeral home, said he was contacted by about a possible sea burial for Tsarnaev.
"The funeral home sent us a note saying if they didn't get a cemetery to bury him, they might want to talk to us about it. Our answer right now is no," said White, who typically does burials 25 miles to 40 miles offshore. "If we had a state-level and federal request to do so, we would do it 100 miles offshore in the middle of the night."
Cremation is common in the deaths of notorious criminals, said experts, because it's easier for families to distribute or keep their ashes and they don't have to find a burial place. But cremation is not allowed in Islam, the faith of Tsarneav and his family. The permissibility of burial at sea, as was done with Osama bin Laden's body, has been debated by Islamic scholars. Experts said an unmarked burial ground would not be out of line with Islamic practice, as Muslims are encouraged to have simple burials instead of extravagant ones.
It's also unclear whether it would be possible to send the body to Russia, as Tsarnaev's mother has reportedly requested. David Casper, a funeral director at Casper Funeral Services in Boston, has shipped several bodies to Russia for funerals, but said it costs thousands of dollars, and requires the deceased to have been issued a passport before death, and embalming, which isn't done in Islam.
"Historically, criminals would have been buried in potter's fields," said Gary Laderman, a professor of religious studies at Emory University who wrote The Sacred Remains: American Attitudes Toward Death, 1799-1883. "That is to say that in the 19th century and earlier, a criminal would not have been given the respect of any kind of proper funeral or individual burial site. They would just throw them into collective anonymous graves that existed in sections of different cemeteries and churchyards. But today, we assume that people within a society are given dignity by a burial or funeral and that it says something about the overall values of society."
Protesters and police have gathered outside Stefan's funeral home since Tsarnaev's body arrived in Worcester. The funeral director, who said he doesn't condone the killings, but believes everyone deserves a funeral, said at a news conference Monday that he has hoped to have had the situation resolved by this point. Cemeteries fear vandalism and outbursts against them if they give space to someone police say killed four people and injured at least 280 in the Boston area, including the marathon bombings and a shootout and car chase, he said.
"In Massachusetts, cemeteries can decide independently what they want to do and who they will accept," said Bob Biggins, a former president of the National Funeral Directors Association and the owner of Magoun-Biggins Funeral Home in Rockland, Mass. "I can understand to a certain degree why a cemetery would be concerned about safety issues and desecration by those protesting, but I think there is a way to do this."
"It can be done privately and quietly, which is something you see often with high-profile deaths, such as with celebrities," Biggins said. "I think it's time to take a step back, let the professionals do what they are called to do, and let them do it without fanfare as we focus on the victims."
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