Tamerlan Tsarnaev and what the dead deserve

Protesters gesture outside the Graham, Putnam, and Mahoney Funeral Parlors in Worcester, Mass., where the body of killed Boston Marathon bombing suspect Tamerlan Tsarnaev is being prepared for burial.
(Elise Amendola / Associated Press)

Tamerlan Tsarnaev allegedly committed the most terrible of acts, the killing and maiming of innocent people. So when cemeteries in Cambridge, Mass, refused to take his body for burial, it was easy to understand the dark mutterings about the Boston Marathon bombing suspect not deserving a proper burial, about how he should be cremated despite his family’s wishes and his religion’s traditions, or his corpse cast into the sea.

Easy to understand, but wrong. Ultimately, Tsarnaev’s burial isn’t so much about him or what he deserves as it is about our society, which generally tries to do the decent thing. Decency means treating the dead with basic civility and respect, no matter who the person was or what acts he may have committed.

Tsarnaev’s mother reportedly wants his remains returned to Russia; an uncle in the United States, who has been working with the funeral home that has his body, thinks he should be buried in Cambridge, where he lived before he was killed in a shootout with police. In any case, the family wants him to be buried in accordance with Muslim belief. But private cemeteries have refused to accept the body, and the city of Cambridge says it doesn’t want the grave site in public burial grounds for fear of protests; it also might be difficult to keep angry Bostonians from vandalizing the grave.


Tsarnaev’s family might not get exactly what they wish for, but a dead person — even one who is suspected of evil — must receive appropriate funeral arrangements without undue public outcry. Texas, a state that is far too willing to execute criminals, at least understands its responsibilities toward those it has killed: Unclaimed bodies of criminals are buried, with a service, in a well-tended cemetery on prison grounds.

Funeral director Peter Stefan, who agreed to handle arrangements for Tsarnaev’s remains, told the Associated Press that he had received abusive phone calls for this act of decency. “Can I pick and choose? No,” he said. “Can I separate the sins from the sinner? No. We are burying a dead body. That is what we do.”

Exactly. And that is what we as a society are supposed to do — bury or cremate the dead with reasonable consideration of their families’ wishes. The public isn’t being asked to honor Tsarnaev, but it should honor its own standards of righteous behavior.