Burying the dead is a custom that most human civilizations follow. It is not merely for the civilized, however; it arose during prehistoric times. Nor is it even merely for humans. Elephants exhibiting what scientists suggest is grief have been observed throwing leaves and branches over their dead.
Yet the norms of civilized behavior are sometimes discarded when the emotions of a mob take hold. A mob’s reactions are sometimes understandable, but they are never laudable.
Irrational, mob-like emotions continue to run high in the wake of the Boston Marathon bombing. Last week, Tamerlan Tsarnaev was buried in a small Islamic cemetery in rural Caroline County, Virginia. Now many Virginians have joined New Englanders in trying to reject all connection to Tsarnaev and his earthly remains.
Tony Lippa, the sheriff of Caroline County, told The Associated Press he was unhappy with what he characterized as a covert burial, saying, “I know of no Virginia law enforcement agency that was notified.” Lippa also expressed concern that vandals might seek out Tsarnaev’s grave. He did, however, say that the interment appeared to be legal.
Floyd Thomas, the chairman of Caroline County’s board of supervisors, was blunter: “We don’t want the county to be remembered as the resting place of the remains for someone who committed a terrible crime.”
We can understand why many people do not want to accept the body of the man who is believed to have masterminded the Boston bombing. There is an urge to strike back in some form, however meaningless (after all, Tsarnaev can no longer care what becomes of his body) or spiteful (we can’t punish him, but we’ll punish any family member who might want to visit his grave).
In contrast, someone whose ethics and compassion inspire her to stand against the mob deserves our deep respect. Martha Mullen, a Virginia resident, organized the interfaith effort that facilitated Tsarnaev’s burial. Mullen said that she was moved by a news report about the refusal of cemeteries in Massachusetts and elsewhere to accept Tsarnaev’s remains.
“Certainly this was a horrific act,” Mullen said, “but [Tsarnaev is] dead and what happened is between him and God. We just need to bury his body and move forward.”
Mullen and the cemetery administrators she contacted, who finally put an end to this demeaning spectacle, continue to face hostility from people nationwide whose anger overrides their judgment.
Tsarnaev’s body couldn’t remain in a Massachusetts funeral home forever. Moreover, we bury executed murderers all the time. Last rites and a final resting place are not privileges reserved to those who live exemplary lives, or even ordinary ones. We don’t desecrate the bodies of those we despise in our society. To do so would not diminish them; it would diminish us.
Distance is sometimes necessary to understand this distinction, however. Someone far from Boston stepped up this time to do the decent thing. The correct response is to thank her, not vilify her. Then again, mob thinking does not often yield a correct response.
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