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Last Friday, the body of Tamerlan Tsarnaev came to my hometown.
Worcester is some 40 miles from Boston, but it was by no means unaffected by the Marathon bombing. Worcester shares a close connection with Boston. Many in the Worcester area work in Boston and we all know the city well. People from Worcester went to the marathon, as participants or spectators, and everyone seems to know someone who was there or who lives close by. We all pray for the many who were injured. And we all grieve the murders of Krystle Campbell, Lu Lingzi, Martin Richard, and Sean Collier.
The Boston Marathon bombing was not simply a local tragedy; it was a crime committed against our families, our neighbors, our friends.
National media reports have recently focused on protests outside the Worcester funeral home where Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s body waits for burial. But local news reporting has been far more nuanced, surveying the range of ways we as a community are working through our own feelings about the bombing and its perpetrators, all the while trying to find hope within and through our vulnerability and anger. The issue has also drawn perceptive and wry commentary, such that by columnist Diane Williamson who suggested that the body be taken by the developers pushing for a controversial slot machine initiative.
That’s the Worcester I know and love.
But the issue remains. What do we do with Tamerlan Tsarnaev?
“I do understand no one wants to associate their names with such evil events.”
So said Ruslan Tsarni, who came here to Worcester to perform the burial rites for his nephew. Death has always raised the specter of contagion — it’s one reason why we have cemeteries. But the question regarding Tamerlan Tsarnaev moves us beyond this. Intellectually, we have tried to find a place for him and his actions, speculating in alternatively careful and uneven ways about the roles he played in life: son, brother, husband, father, Chechen, Muslim, boxer, terrorist. Now the uncomfortable question confronts us immediately: Where do we put him?
If we put Tsarnaev in the ground, are we allowing him a permanent presence in our midst? Is denying him burial the only way to decisively condemn him and his acts? Is his presence too close to those who have been wounded so deeply?
For it’s part, Cambridge would not allow Tsarnaev to be buried within city limits. His body lay in a North-Attleborough funeral home until it came to Worcester. Thus far, no cemetery is willing to take him.
“We are burying a dead body. That’s what we do.”
So said Worcester funeral director Peter Stefan. Society entrusts some people with the tasks the rest of us don’t want to do. One of those is burying the dead and someone has to do it. One can interpret this as a simple bureaucratic fact, but it attests to something deeper. “I cannot separate the sin from the sinner,” Stefan explained. And he’s right — none of us can. I doubt if we’ll ever fully know how to place Tamerlan Tsarnaev and understand the connections between his actions and his person. And putting him in the ground is not going to bring closure to his many victims. But we all do return to the ground inevitably. Burying Tamerlan Tsarnaev is paradoxically an act of faith and hope, affirming that a connection exists between us all, even though that connection may itself be buried and hidden from our sight.
Schmalz writes and teaches in the fields of Comparative Religions and South Asian Studies at the College of the Holy Cross. He also writes on Catholic spirituality.
Image via Ted Eytan.