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Burying Tamerian Tsarnaev: Is It a Jewish Thing To Do?

 

May 10, 2013

 

 

Many years ago - when he was only three years old - my son, Daniel Shapiro, came home from his first day of Nursery School at the JCC (which must have lasted all of two or 2 ½ hours) and announced, "I have a new best friend."

He worked fast. Not just a friend on the first day. A new best friend.

Well, this evening I'm pleased to announce that I also have a new best friend - sort of.

Her name is Martha Mullen.

MM is the person who made the connections which allowed Tamerian Tsarnaev to be buried in a Muslim cemetery in Virginia earlier today.

As you'll recall Tsarnaev, age 26, died April 19 after a shootout with police in Watertown Massachusetts. This was four days after he and his brother detonated two bombs that killed three people and injured more than 260 near the Boston Marathon finish line.

For weeks controversy has swirled around what to do with his body. First, an undertaker couldn't be found. Secondly, even when a Worcester funeral parlor accepted Tsarnaev's body, a site for his burial could not be found. Local cemeteries wouldn't accept the body. Demonstrators around the funeral parlor and elsewhere kept vigil threatening to prevent the body from ever being taken to any cemetery for burial.

Then came Martha Mullen who does not know Tsarnaev and has no connection to Massachusetts.

Here is how the Boston Globe describes what she did:

Martha Mullen, 48, of Richmond, said she was dismayed at reports of protests outside of Graham Putnam & Mahoney Funeral Parlors in Worcester.

"It portrayed America at its worst," she said in an interview with the Globe this morning. "The fact that people were picketing this poor man (funeral director Peter Stefan) who was just trying to help really upset me."

Mullen, a professional counselor who has lived in Richmond for most of her life, said she was sitting in a Starbucks Tuesday when it hit her: She could be the one to end the controversy.

"Jesus says [to] love our enemies," said Mullen, who holds a degree from United Theological Seminary in Dayton, Ohio. "So I was sitting in Starbucks and thought, maybe I'm the one person who needs to do something."

After searching the Web for proper Muslim burial traditions and requirements, she turned her search to any local organizations or cemeteries that might be able to facilitate the burial.

Mullen said she then e-mailed Islamic Funeral Services of Virginia, which responded within an hour that it could provide a plot for Tsarnaev at the Al-Barzakh Cemetery, in Doswell, Va.

From there, Mullen reached out to the Worcester police -- who had been providing around-the-clock protection for Stefan, whose funeral home had held Tsarnaev's body for the past week.

Throughout Tuesday night and most of the day Wednesday, Stefan, Worcester police, and the Islamic Funeral Services crafted a plan to get the body to Virginia.

Tsarnaev's body was removed from the home Thursday night without any public notice. Only after it was buried did Worcester police publicly announce both the removal of the remains and their entombment somewhere outside of Worcester.

**

As I said, my new best friend is Martha Mullen because she did the right thing and because she did it as a religious person. Her Christianity motivated her to do the right thing.

And it doesn't frighten me to indicate that Christianity was Mullen's motivation.

In fact, that's the whole point of this religious enterprise - whether it be Christian, Jewish, or Muslim. We are in this "business" because we are trying to train ourselves to do the right thing.

Mullen did it, but a Jew could have done it too because Judaism does speak on the matter of how the dead are to be treat.

Ironically, I was reminded of the key Jewish passage on this topic earlier this week.

Monday morning I was preparing to teach the second session of my course on Death and Dying. To do that, I was rereading Jewish sources on burial when I came across this passage from Deuteronomy Chapter 21:22.

"If a man is guilty of [murder] and is put to death, you must hang him on a tree BUT you must not let his corpse remain on that tree overnight. You must bury him the same day. For a hanging body is an affront to God."

So what does that text teach us?

First, the text becomes the reason why Jews do bury their dead quickly. Don't let the body stay there overnight. Don't leave it unburied for long. That is why we Jews do our funeral relatively quickly.

But there is more and it pertains to the Tsarnaev situation. For as it happens, the text doesn't only say bury someone quickly, it gives the example of a criminal. Most importantly, the text assumes that even the body of a criminal still requires burial.

According to Judaism, it's a matter of KVOD HA-MET...HONORING OR RESPECTING THE DEAD.

That's the value Jews follow.

We respect a dead body.

If the Torah says we humans are created in the "image of God," we take that to mean that in some way every body has some sanctity about it. Even a corpse. Even the corpse of a killer. Even the body of Tamerian Tsarnaev.

Does that mean we would be forgiving Tsarnaev if we were to bury him?

That we would endorse or support what he did?

No, for me burying Tsarnaev says something about us as human beings not about him.

It says that we are larger than the criminal.

We are not about vengeance.

We aren't willing to come down to the level of someone who doesn't value life.

All the more so, when faced with evil, we won't become evil.

We'll follow the Torah which teaches a higher value: There is somehow a dignity to every human being. We can't understand what the murderer does, but somehow he remains human.

As such, we do what humans do. In our case, what Jews might do.

We complete the cycle of life and death.

We do the burial.

It's right. It's Kvod Hamet. It's respecting the dead.

**

It's even what a Christian pastor did at this time of year (late April) in 1999 a few days after the massacre at Columbine High School in Colorado. I'm thinking of Reverend Don Marxhausen who officiated at the funeral of one of the two teenagers who perpetrated the massacre at the Columbine High School.

Dylan Klebold was one of those boys. He was 17 years old. He killed himself at the school and then the questions started: among them, who would step forward and help Dylan's family as they mourned their incredible loss.

It was Don Marxhausen who believed Dylan's family needed solace and bravely officiated at a small, private service for the Klebold family.

Months later, as far as I can tell, Reverend Marxhausen had to leave his church because the back and forth about what he had done was so intense, but here's what I take away from the examples of Don Marxhausen and Martha Mullen.

And I think it's the take away for all of us.

It's not easy to do the right thing.

If you've ever wondered, it's not easy to go against the crowd.

It is painful and even dangerous to be one voice among many.

But it is the essence of religious faith.

Abraham was the only one in Ur who wasn't ready to worship many gods.

Moses was the only one in Egypt who felt he had to speak up for the slaves and directly tell Pharaoh - Let my people go.

And Hillel put it best for us Jews:

Hillel (the same one who gave us the sandwich at the Passover Seder) taught: In a place where there are no human beings, you must try to be a human being.

That's a truth I embrace.

In a place where there are no human beings, you must try to be a human being.

Hillel may have touched the core of Jewish values.

In a place where there are no human beings, you must try to be a human being.

That's a truth I hope I can live out each and every day.

 

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