Tamerlan Tsarnaev, the alleged Boston Marathon terrorist who died during an April 18 police chase, was finally buried at an undisclosed location, it was announced today. But it was a long and uncertain journey to the grave: For weeks, news stories noted that no one wanted to bury him. His widow, according to media reports, declined to claim the bullet-ridden body, while the Muslim community wanted to distance itself from him entirely. Local funeral homes feared protests if he got buried in their grounds, while politicians clamored around microphones to exclaim that he did not deserve to be buried in Massachusetts. The exasperated funeral home owner responsible for his corpse pursued the remote possibility of burying him in Russia—or at sea, like Osama Bin Laden. The only person who seemed willing to claim responsibility for the corpse was an estranged uncle, who told reporters: “A dead person needs to be buried.”
Jewish law reflects a sensitive balance of values to help us retain our humanity while ferociously waging an extended war against terror. But ultimately, it sides with Tsarnaev’s uncle.
The Torah explicitly mandates burying executed criminals: “If a man is guilty of a capital offense and is put to death, and you impale him on a stake, you must not let his corpse remain on the stake overnight, but must bury him the same day. For an impaled body is an affront to God—you shall not defile the land that the Lord your God is giving you to possess” (Deuteronomy 21:22-23). The rationale offered by the Torah is very telling. It is an affront to God to leave a body unburied since, as the Talmud explains, all humans were created in the image of God (Sanhedrin 46b). No actions, however horrific, can remove that fundamental element of a person’s humanity. This point was exemplified by Joshua, who at the beginning of Israel’s military conquests, when symbolic actions of brutality might have instilled fear in enemies, punctiliously buried the kings of Canaan (Joshua 10:27). In fact, even the enemies in the apocalyptic war of Gog and Magog (Ezekiel 39) will get buried leading the nations of the world, according to one medieval commentator, to proclaim the greatness of the Jewish nation for burying their enemies. Accordingly, Tsarnaev, whatever crimes he may have committed, should indeed have been buried. (In fact, according to Jewish law, the only human remnants that might not be regularly entitled to burial are the ashes from cremated corpses, and even in that case many scholars disagree.)
Yet the right to burial does not mean that every person is entitled to equal burial rites. The Talmud declares that an executed convict is not buried in his family’s gravesite: “We do not bury a wicked person next to a righteous one.” Instead, the community must create a separate cemetery to bury these executed criminals, with many scholars further asserting that these criminals should be denied any honorary funeral or mourning rites. These laws signify society’s eternal condemnation of that criminal’s actions.
Over the centuries, the use of separate burial plots became an important yet controversial tool for social sanctions. Jewish law prohibits suicide because it shows a lack of respect for one’s own divine image. In eras before the impact of depression and mental illness was fully appreciated, suicide victims would be buried at a distance from other burial plots. Apostates or excommunicated community members were given similar treatments and at times buried outside the cemetery walls.
While Jewish law mandates that Jews actively help to bury deceased gentile neighbors—in accordance with the divine image found in all humans—it also maintains that only Jews should be buried within Jewish cemeteries. (Indeed, in many societies, burial grounds convey cultural affinities, including familial, religious, and national ties.) This has caused tensions within the State of Israel where, after years of debate, intermarried Jewish Israelis may now be buried with their gentile spouses in state cemeteries reserved for non-Jews. The law has also caused particularly acrimonious debates over separate military cemeteries since many Israelis, including a few rabbinic scholars, believe that comrades in arms should be buried together, no matter what their religious affiliation.
These controversies, however, highlight the powerful symbolism created by separate burial plots. In the case of terrorists killed, there should be no debate: Their corpses must be interred in their own nonglorified area. They not are not one of us—the interfaith, inter-racial, international community of civilized human beings who respect the divine image found in all people.
Admittedly, Maimonides and others have contended that in extreme circumstances, a king or government may suspend the mandate of burial for some broader societal purposes. This might explain, for example, why David did not try to immediately bury the children of King Saul after they were executed by hanging (II Samuel 21). Yet in this case of Tsarnaev, that would have been a mistake. First, it is unclear why Tsarnaev should not have been buried while mass murderers and serial rapists have not received similar treatment. One might argue that such treatment will discourage future lone-wolf attacks, yet I find that claim unlikely: Radical fundamentalists will find a way to ensure their holy-war soldiers that they have a place in Heaven whether they are buried or not. Second, one must weigh the consequences of how Muslim fundamentalists will react to such a symbolic action, especially when they have their hands on an American corpse. Yet most fundamentally, while in the midst of a campaign against terror, one must never forget that every human being was created in God’s image. Burying terrorists sends an important message to ourselves: Even as we fight a just war against our enemies, we should not lose sensitivity to the human tragedy of this wickedness. Indeed, for these reasons, Israel maintains special cemeteries and caskets to bury foreign terrorists.
Even if he were found guilty of the crimes he allegedly committed, Tsarnaev should have received the simplest of burials in an undisclosed government property with the following written at the site: “Buried here is a terrorist who was born in the image of God with unlimited potential to do good but who desecrated that virtue with his violent actions. May his victims rest in peace, and may the society that buried him continue to emulate the ways of God and merit to live in a world of peace.” Amen.
Like this article? Sign up for our Daily Digest to get Tablet Magazine’s new content in your inbox each morning.