Sarah Bond: Doing Unto Others: The Burial of Tamerlan Tsarnaev--Another Classical Take

The body of the suspected Boston bomber, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, was buried outside Richmond, Virginia a few weeks back. The burial came after an exasperated search, first to find a funeral home that would accept the body, and then to find a cemetery willing to accept it. Eventually, the corpse travelled to Worchester, Massachusetts, to the funeral home of Graham Putnam & Mahoney, who agreed to handle the service. Although protesters picketed the business, funeral director Peter Stefan noted, "We take an oath to do this. Can I pick and choose? No. Can I separate the sins from the sinners? No." Weeks later, with the body still requiring a burial spot, Virginia resident Martha Mullen, stepped forward to help find a spot in a local Islamic cemetery. Her justification stemmed from Christian scripture, “Jesus says [to] love our enemies…So I was sitting in Starbucks and thought, maybe I’m the one person who needs to do something.” As it turns out, Martha’s actions align with many religious scriptures. 

Although Daniel Mendelsohn has already masterfully exposed the parallels of this ordeal with Greek tragedy, I now hope to situate the affair within the Judeo-Christian religious context. The right to burial is an ideal espoused by the three major western religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Probably the most famous burial of an alleged criminal was that of Christ. At the end of Jesus’ life, two Jewish councilors came forward to care for his body: Joseph of Arimathea
Savoldo (1480-1548), "Joseph of Arimathea with Christ"
Now in the Cleveland Museum of Art.
and Nicodemus. Joseph of Arimathea shrouded and then buried Jesus’ body in his own tomb, while Nicodemus rubbed the body with myrrh and aloe. These two men may have themselves been part of the
beth din, the Jewish court in charge of public graves and which performed the burial of criminals. In Judaism, all persons—criminal or otherwise—have the right to a quick burial. This is stipulated in the Old Testament as well as in the Talmud. In the book of Ezekiel (39:11-14), for instance, it is stated that a group of gravediggers would be brought together, taking seven months to bury the dead in a cemetery specially designated for the slain bodies of invading soldiers. In Deuteronomy (21:22-23), it notes, “If someone guilty of a capital offense is put to death and their body is exposed on a pole, you must not leave the body hanging on the pole overnight. Be sure to bury it that same day, because anyone who is hung on a pole is under God's curse. You must not desecrate the land the LORD your God is giving you as an inheritance.”

This belief is seen later within Judaism, well into the Roman period. In his commentary on the first Jewish Revolt, the Jewish historian Josephus would note with outrage that the Idumeans, who rebelled with the Jews against Rome in the first century CE, threw out corpses without giving it a proper burial: “They proceeded to that degree of as)ebei/a! (impiety), as to cast away their dead bodies without burial, although the Jews used to take so much care of the burial of men, that they took down those that were condemned and crucified, and buried them before the going down of the sun” (Joseph. Bell. Jud. 4.317).

Themselves stemming from a Jewish tradition, Christianity would similarly focus on the right of all to be given burial. In his late second century Apology, the early Christian writer
Two fossores (gravediggers) on a fresco guard
loculi within the catacomb of S. Callixtus.
Tertullian argued for the beneficence of the Christian community, alleging that Christian associations even buried those who could not pay their burial dues. Boastfully, he remarked that Christians gave to the church in order to support the burial of the orphans, the poor, household servants without means, and even shipwrecked sailors (Tert. Apol. 39.6). The burial of all—poor, rich, or criminal—was a centrifugal part of early Christian identity, one which—at least in the minds of many Christians—set them apart from many Romans.

Following his victory at the battle of the Milvian Bridge in 312 CE, the emperor Constantine began to promote Christianity with the Roman empire. When he began to model his own city, Constantinople, after Christian ideals, he wished it to exemplify the Christian ideals of charity and burial of all. He institutionalized a scheme to provide burials to all residents, even if they could not afford the costs. He allocated 950 workshops from the city to provide funeral workers for his burial scheme; a legacy that would last at least into the early Byzantine period. Constantine’s model was a paradigm. In other cities, such as Antioch and Alexandria, others began to institute their own state burial corps. Constantine had, to an extent, reified and institutionalized the Judeo-Christian belief in the right of burial.

The obligation to bury the dead—particularly those of the Muslim faith—is strong within Islam as well. I was touched two years ago, reading about the gravediggers burying the hundreds of bodies of the slain soldiers of Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi. As the New York Times then reported, “The men who would bury them sprinkled perfumed powder on the dead men’s burned or bloodied brows. Then they prayed. A quiet processional began.” Despite the fact that these soldiers attacked the city of Misurata, and were themselves viewed as invaders and traitors, the townspeople argued for the proper burial of the dead according to Islamic law. As Sheik Abdulhafiz Abu Ghrain, the overseer of the cemetery and the person that gave the soldiers’ last rites, said of the Koran, “In our faith we have the book. And this book tells us we must do to others as we would have done to us.”

Debate over the slain body of Tamerlan Tsarnaev is understandable. The allegations against him are deplorable, but do not themselves preclude him from a proper, and now, one hopes, peaceful burial. The actions of Peter Stefan and Martha Mullen are to be lauded. Just as in Musarata, America can show we are better than the Boston bombers by treating our enemies better than they treated us.  


  1. Absolutely correct in principle but let's not forget that, some time after he became Christian, Constantine changed capital punishment from crucifixion to death by fire, i.e. criminals were burnt alive. No body to bury. Not nice.

  2. The practice of immolation was referred to as vivicomburium often, and yes, Constantine did impose it for a number of high crimes (CTh. 10.4.1, for instance)--but not every capital punishment from then forward was death by fire. Only the most elevated and serious in nature in particular, as death by fire was a very demonstrative penalty.

    It should also be noted that after immolation we don't know what happened to the ashes, but ashes could be housed in a cinerarium. Bodies don't need to be inhumed whole in order to be considered buried.


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