Why, exactly, is it so difficult to find a burial place for Tamerlan Tsarnaev? “We take an oath to do this,” funeral director Peter Stefan of Worcester, Mass. told USA Today. “Can I pick and choose? No. Can I separate the sins from the sinners? No. We are burying a dead body. That’s what we do.”
What’s the problem with that?
A Massachusetts Imam says Tsarnaev doesn’t deserve to be buried in a holy place. The town manager of the City of Cambridge doesn’t want a tumultuous interment to disturb the “peace of the city.” And there are worries that his grave might be defaced, or even become a secret shrine for those who profess admiration for what he did.
Behind the resistance there is the unarticulated conviction that to inter such a person would contaminate American soil — to render it somehow impure. People also objected to burying Timothy McVeigh, executed in 2001 for the bombing of the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City that killed 168 people.
In the end, McVeigh was cremated and his ashes scattered in an undisclosed place. But that didn’t satisfy Dave Shiflett of National Review Online, who declared that he should be dragged “through the desert behind horses until the bastard disappears.” As Ed Linenthal noted in an article on McVeigh in Religion in the News, among those involved in creating the memorial of the bombing, there was a “strong desire to prevent pollution of the memorial center by inclusion of the faces or stories of the perpetrators.”
Interring the likes of McVeigh or Tsarnaev means that there will be a physical reminder of them for all to see. What we seem to want to do is to rub out all physical evidence of them, to expunge them materially from the earth. Lurking in the background is the sense that the physical remains of a person will one day be resurrected — which is why orthodox followers of the Abrahamic faiths do not permit cremation.
And so we find ourselves at an impasse regarding Tsarnaev’s remains. A public that does not want them to remain, and a religious tradition that says they must remain, even if not in holy ground.