No one wants the body of Tamerlan Tsarnaev, the deceased Boston Marathon bomber. While a funeral director has agreed to bury him, no cemeteries will take the body. Even though some individuals have offered their own burial plots, cities have put the breaks on the body being placed within their limits. It doesn’t even appear that his homeland is willing to receive the body. Some of the concerns are pragmatic: cemeteries fear that the grave will be vandalized and are concerned about protests and boycotts that could harm their business. But there is, I think, something deeper at work: we don’t like the idea of Tamerlan being like one of us, one of the great crowd of humanity that lies underneath the ground or which will one day come to rest there. We don’t want him near our loved ones or near our own future resting places because we don’t want to admit that he shares anything in common with us.
However, one of the corporeal works of mercy in Catholicism is the burying of the dead—not just the “good” dead, but the dead, period. But why? Because burial is not—at heart—about a recognition of the deceased’s “goodness.” Funerals and memorial services may often focus on this, but it’s not the real point. We bury the dead out of recognition of the basic dignity of human life and death. Every human life and death—no exceptions. But this recognition can be difficult precisely because it is so tempting to try and exclude from the idea of the “human” those who do things that we rightly recognize as “inhuman.”
We like monsters—they’re a great boon to our sense of our own righteous. Particularly in a world where we’ve largely lost any concept of original sin and where most of us like to believe that, in the end, we’re “good people,” we need something to reassure us of our own goodness. Nothing does that quite so well as the figure of the monster. Nearly all of us can, at the very least, saw “Well, yes, I did X, but it’s not like I’m Hitler!” This is, perhaps, the same reason why convicted child molesters are often assaulted in prison: attacking the designated monster allows even those that most of society have decried as “bad people” to gain some sense of moral high ground.
I too have believed in monsters at certain points in my life—it’s just that I could never quite shake the fear that the monster might be me. As I noted in my previous post on guilt, I’ve never actually been too good at believing that I’m a “good person.” As my life progressed, drug addiction made me reach the point where I knew that, under the right circumstances, I was capable of anything. There are plenty of bad things that I’ve never done, but all I can say now is “there but for the grace of God go I”—I can’t bring myself to say “Well, I could never…”
I think this is one reason why I always loved literature. At its best, it forces us to see the human even where we don’t want to see the human. It doesn’t allow us to dismiss those whose actions we abhor as monstrous others but forces us to recognize within them the same humanity which we ourselves possess. It forces us to say: “That could be me.”
Of course, Catholicism argues both for the reality of our sinful nature and for the real possibility of redemption. In burying the dead—in recognizing the dignity of all human beings, even those that have done terrible things—we recognize both that (1) we are all capable of great evil, that we cannot claim a pure “goodness” for ourselves, and (2) that in spite of the evil that we do, there is still something in the human that God pronounced “good,” we still bear the imago Dei. In the terrible events in Boston, Tamerlan and his brother refused to see their fellow human beings as entitled to dignity and respect. Our response to the tragedy must reverse this vision: we must assert the dignity of the human. The best retort to Tsarnaev’s violence is to lay him to rest with respect for the human dignity that he himself had lost sight of. As the Worcester, MA police chief said: “We are not barbarians. We bury the dead.”
UPDATE: The Worchester PD now reports that: “A courageous and compassionate individual came forward to provide the assistance needed to properly bury the deceased. His body is no longer in the City of Worcester and is now entombed.”