We Are Not Barbarians

Antigone, photo credit UC Irvine via Flickr Creative Commons

Antigone

[As] for [Polyneices],

the proclamation in the state declares
he’ll have no burial mound, no funeral rites,
and no lament. He’ll be left unburied,
his body there for birds and dogs to eat,
a clear reminder of his shameful fate.
 

This is part of King Creon’s demand in Sophocles’ great drama Antigone. Polyneices betrayed his nation, waged war against it, and met his death because of his rebellion. King Creon orders that his body be left unburied as an example of shame. Despite the threat of execution to anyone who disobeys his order, Creon’s niece Antigone defies him.

Alas, Greek tragedy is not a relic of the distant past. Antigone has played out again over the last two of months, in the wake of the Boston Marathon bombing. I am speaking of Tamerlan Tsarnaev, the Chechen immigrant who seems to have turned on his adopted nation with an act of terrorism, only to be killed in a confrontation with police shortly thereafter. In the wake of those horrifying and tense days, the anger and pain of the people of Massachusetts and beyond, couldn’t or wouldn’t see the young man buried in that land. It was later that a woman in Virginia found a burial place for one of the most hated men in America.

Back in April, a funeral parlor in Worcester, Massachusetts finally agreed to take in Tsarnaev’s body and prepare it for burial. Immediately protesters gathered daily outside to declare their opposition to allowing the burial of his body. The frustrated local police chief finally spoke up, saying, “We are not barbarians. We bury the dead.

Worcester police Chief Gary Gemme’s plea came a day after he said that a deal struck Monday to bury the 26-year-old’s remains at a state prison site dissolved.

Worcester funeral home director Peter Stefan has said none of the 120 offers of graves from the U.S. and Canada have worked out because officials in those cities and towns don’t want the body.

And while other politicians continued to urge the family to return Tsarnaev’s body to Russia, and talk show hosts said it should just be dumped in the ocean, still others joined with Chief Gemme in urging mercy on Tsarnaev, even as he’s accused of something so terrible:

“The only signs of people who are showing some sort of moral conscience are those few who stand with a card near the funeral home saying (burial) is a corporal work of mercy,” said James Keenan, a moral theologian at Boston College. “To say,’we won’t bury him’ makes us barbaric. It takes away mercy, the trademark of Christians.”

Finally, a woman in Virginia arranged for Tsarnaev’s burial in an Islamic cemetery willing to accept his remains. And she was likewise motivated by her Christian faith and the works of mercy when she acted. “My first thought was Jesus said love your enemies,” Martha Mullen said.

Nobody is without sin. Certainly this was a horrific act, but he’s dead and what happened is between him and God. We just need to bury his body and move forward. People were making an issue and detracting from the healing that needed to take place.”

“Will you help these hands
      take up Polyneices’ corpse and bury it?
Yes. I’ll do my duty to my brother—
      and yours as well, if you’re not prepared to.
      I won’t be caught betraying him.”
-Antigone
 

Of course his burial hasn’t ended the hurt and anger that people feel. Tamerlan’s brother will eventually stand trial for the murders they are both accused of. No doubt many people will still feel that Martha Mullen herself committed an injustice in her action. But I can’t help wondering: which rule of justice prevails in our day, King Creon’s or Martha Mullen’s?

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