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Burying Tamerlan Tsarnaev: The Problem with Dead Terrorists

Not in my graveyard...

Tamerlan Tsarnaev is rotting in a grave in Virginia, and state residents aren’t happy about it. His death cheated the country of its chance to exact judicial revenge for the Boston Marathon bombings, and the problem of burying Tamerlan Tsarnaev became a lightning rod for the national angst over a senseless and terrible attack.

For weeks, Tsarnaev’s body was radioactive – no one wanted to touch it, either out of disdain or perhaps a fear that their character would be polluted in the public eye by mere association with the dead terrorist. Tsarnaev’s wife, Katherine Russell, refused to claim the body and eventually released it to Ruslan Tsarni, the bombers’ uncle. With nearly all doors shut to Tsarni, Peter Stefan, owner of the Graham Putnam & Mahoney Funeral Parlors in Worcester, Mass., agreed to prepare the body for burial. He washed and covered the corpse according to Muslim tradition, though he was publicly criticized, also becoming a target for protest.

Stefan and Tsarni unsuccessfully sought a cemetery to accept Tsarnaev. Cambridge City Manager Robert Healy refused to allow the burial locally, saying, “I have determined that it is not in the best interest of ‘peace within the city’ to execute a cemetery deed for a plot within the Cambridge Cemetery.”

Other cemeteries in New Jersey, Connecticut and Massachusetts declined, and Tsarnaev’s native country, Russia, also refused to accept the body. Ultimately, it was Martha Mullen of Richmond, Va., who worked with the Islamic Society of Greater Richmond and others to put Tsarnaev in the ground. The Al-Barzakh Cemetery in Doswell, Va., (about three miles east of Kings Dominion), offered a plot. Al-Barzakh only contains 47 graves, and Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s is unmarked.

Predictably, there was outrage in Virginia as residents and local leaders looked for a way to disinter the body. After an investigation, however, it seems no laws were broken, and his body will stay where it is. Virginia Gov. Robert McDonnell said of the matter, “There are a lot of things that people do with their private property that they’re entitled to do under the Constitution… I think the state doesn’t interfere with regulating who’s buried in a private cemetery.”

While Tsarnaev’s body is biologically no different than road kill, his burial nevertheless drew a heated debate. There were a few forces at work here. With Tsarnaev dead and his younger brother Dzhokhar Tsarnaev out of sight, Boston and the country were left with a lot of anger and little place to direct it. The issue of Tsarnaev’s remains became an outlet through which the country exercised its collective grief.

There was also a clash between public tenor and private ownership. Tsarni had legal possession of the body, and it was his call on how to dispose of the body (his choice being a burial according to Muslim tradition). Yet, privately owned cemeteries also exercised their right to decide who would be granted a lot. This was no doubt influenced by the public angst and a reticence to have such a contentious corpse entombed in their businesses’ property. Cemetery owners also harbored justifiable concerns that Tsarnaev’s grave could become a site of pilgrimage or protest.

These kinds of issues are not unique to the case of Tamerlan Tsarnaev. In fact, they are common whenever terrorists are caught and killed.

There are many bad people buried in American soil, though some of the worst are often cremated. As well as McVeigh, serial killers Ted Bundy and Jeffrey Dahmer were cremated, skirting the issue of where to bury them. The 9/11 hijackers, as well as some terrorists in other countries, were incinerated or otherwise destroyed in their attacks, also removing the need for a burial. But managing the non-conflagrant disposal of a much-hated individual does sometimes occur. This is particularly challenging when a government (as opposed to a private citizen) possesses the body. No part of the U.S. government had any say in how Tsarnaev was buried, though local governments did exercise some authority in where he was interred. Osama bin Laden’s body, however, was never released to family, and he was dumped in the Indian Ocean.

The National Post’s Matt Gurney suggested a cemetery dedicated to the bodies no one wants, writing that a small piece of restricted federal property could offer a place for decent burials while limiting pilgrims and protesters. A cemetery of the unwanted would resolve some cases, but it would likely not dissipate public anger, which isn’t necessarily bad. A debate over burial may actually be a healthy, cathartic way for a society to mourn, targeted anger turning to sadness and ultimately acceptance. Yet, even as Tsarnaev rots into obscurity, the country will have another way to work through the Boston tragedy. Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s next trial date is May 30.

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Justin Hienz writes on counterterrorism, violent extremism and homeland security. In addition to his journalistic...