Editor’s Note: This article was set to appear on the blog in May 2013 but was not able to be published at the time due to a format change to our website.
A footnote that should probably be called a headnote: This is not a conversation about Hell or St. Peter pranking bad people when they show up at the Pearly Gates. I will leave that to the theologians, scholars, and The Simpsons. I’m a funeral director, which basically qualifies me to talk about what happens to their dead body and the people they leave behind.
Tamerlan Tsarnaev. I’m pretty sure we can all agree that he was a bad guy. He could have donated all of his money to an orphanage and I would come to the same conclusion. In Worcester, Massachusetts there is a funeral director stuck with his body and he has no idea what he is going to do with it. Cemeteries are refusing burial. Protesters are outside his funeral home decrying him for taking in the body. His Facebook page is a mixed bag of hate and threats versus praise and compassion. What is the guy to do?
I don’t envy Peter Stefan, the funeral professional tasked with the funeral arrangements, at all. He was asked to do a job and he is doing his best to see it through. In that sense, I sympathize with him. There has been a national conversation about what should be done with Tamerlan’s body and you can find unsolicited insight from the masses in the comments section of just about any news article on the subject (warning: comment boards are where rational thinking and grammar get pranked by St. Peter after they die). The question about Tamerlan is much broader than his specific case. As a funeral director, this is a dilemma that we face all too often. How do we honor a life when it may not be appropriate to honor it?
The truth is that lots of bad people die. Abusive parents, adulterers, tax evaders, registered sex offenders, drug dealers, murderers, thieves, and drug dealers who murder and rob other drug dealers, just to list a few. The truth is that there is a body that needs taken care of and some funeral director is going to be there to take care of it.
We are not endorsing their actions. But we do know that there is a family and a community left behind that needs to grieve. There is anger and resentment that needs to be expressed. There are questions that need answered. There is unconditional love that comes into question. What did this person’s life mean?
Taking care of the dead body provides a time to try and reconcile these issues. The mourning period is not only for the victims of the crime, but also the victims of association (the people who were associated with the person who committed the crimes/acts). These people had nothing to do with the acts of the individual, but are left behind to answer for it.
Ruslan Tsarni, the uncle of the two suspects in the Boston bombings, has had to have press conferences denouncing the actions of his nephews. He had no connection to the act itself, but is having to answer for it. Is that fair to him? What a difficult thing for any person to process, let alone to have to process it in front of the public all while having to answer for the acts of family.
So what does a funeral director know about what should be done with Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s body? I know Ruslin Tsarni needs to grieve. I know the families of Krystle Cambell, Martin William Richard, Lingzi Lu, Sean Collier, and all of the other victims of the attack need to grieve. The first responders need to grieve. The city of Boston needs to grieve. The nation needs to grieve. We all need to grieve. As human beings we have an amazing ability to rally in support of one another. We can grieve, denounce actions, look for answers, and bury the body of a bad person, all at the same time. We are multi-taskers on a level never seen before in nature and capable of the greatest acts of compassion. To juggle all of these emotions is what makes us human. We can simultaneously be outraged and sympathetic. It is what makes us Boston Strong.
What would you do if tasked with the same dilemma as Peter Stefan?
Editor’s Note: Since this article was written, Tamerlan Tsarnaev was buried in an unmarked grave in Doswell, VA.
Footnote: This is a very sensitive subject. Please forgive some of my levity in this article. As a funeral director that helps others face grief every day, levity becomes a defense mechanism to prevent myself from becoming depressed. My thoughts and prayers go out to all of the victims in Boston. Stay Boston Strong.
Kevin is a sixth generation funeral director. He lives in Upper Arlington, Ohio with his wife, Jennifer, sons, Foster and Ferris, and two dogs, Louie and Brutus.