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Burying Tamerlan: Bostonians Say Not In Our Backyard


We are going to turn now to the Boston area, where the question of what to do with the body of bombing suspect Tamerlan Tsarnaev is causing an uproar. Protestors have gathered outside the funeral home where his body is being kept. Cemeteries in the area say they will not allow him to be buried on their grounds. We wondered what precedents, if any, might guide decisions in this sensitive area.

We've unfortunately had the experience of other mass murderers and we wondered what happened in those cases. So we've reached out to James Fox. He's a professor of criminology at Northeastern University and a columnist for the Boston Globe. Professor Fox, welcome.

JAMES FOX: Thank you.

MARTIN: So first of all, could you just tell us about the general environment in Boston around this issue? What are you seeing?

FOX: Well, this is not our brightest shining moment. After the bombings we've earned the slogan Boston Strong because there was tremendous positive actions here in Boston among the public, among the public officials. But I don't think this is our best moment, this controversy about how to bury and if to bury the remains of this suspect.

MARTIN: Why do you say that?

FOX: Well, he obviously has paid the price for his crimes. He's dead. At this point it's a matter of skin and bones and we're not responding to this situation with very much dignity and humanity. I recognize people say that the act that he is suspected of committing was inhumane and why should we show humanity to him? But of course we don't have to stoop to that level. That's beneath us as a society, as a people.

MARTIN: You know, sadly we - as a country have had experience with previous incidence of mass violence, too many to even enumerate here. I mean, the Columbine - the shooting at Columbine High School, Adam Lanza, there are - Timothy McVeigh, for example, who was the perpetrator of the Oklahoma City bombing. What has happened? Do you know what has happened in prior cases like that?

FOX: Well, there are cases in which - most of the time when there are funerals of mass murderers, they are private ceremonies wanting to avoid the press and curiosity seekers. Sometimes the location of the gravesites is obscured in order to avoid vandals or desecration of the cemeteries. So clearly there's an understanding that these criminals, even after death, bring out the worst in us.

But in most other cases we go ahead and bury them. Or sometimes they are cremated, whatever the family wishes. Keep in mind that the family generally has not committed a crime and they certainly have their right to grieve in whatever way they wish to do that.

MARTIN: Are you aware of any prior incidence where there was this kind of response to efforts to bury the remains of a person who is implicated in a crime like this?

FOX: No. This is unique. But there's reasons for that. It's not just the nature of the crime and the amount of carnage that was caused at the marathon; it's more than that. It's also the national origin of the suspects and the fact that this crime was more political than pathological. In other cases of mass murder, people can say, well, the guy was crazy. He's dead. And perhaps they can move on after that.

But in a case like this, the view is that it's all anti-American ideology that led to it and people resent the fact, or even the idea that he would be buried in the country that apparently he detested so greatly.

MARTIN: So you're saying...

FOX: Keep in mind, again...

MARTIN: I'm sorry. You're saying that the critical factor here is that A) he is not a citizen; B) he is an immigrant. Do you think that his religious beliefs have anything to do with it as well?

FOX: Well, his religious beliefs are playing a role too here. I mean, we have seen after the bombings an apparent uptick in anti-Muslim sentiment, even attacks on innocent people because of their appearance or their faith here in Boston.

MARTIN: But Professor Fox, I do have to note that leaders, the religious leaders of the mosques in that area, are also declining to conduct burial rights for him. So his co-religionists also seem to have these feelings.

FOX: Well, it's not just the religious aspect. It's also the politics. That is, this crime was not someone who was responding to some psychopathology; this was a cold-blooded, heartless crime that involved hostility towards the United States. And for that reason this crime is receiving a different response than most mass murderers are.

MARTIN: Finally...

FOX: But as we know, it's also important...

MARTIN: Go ahead. Mm-hmm.

FOX: ...it's also important to point out that we're now obsessing over this issue about what to do with his body. And it certainly is taking away attention to much more critical issues about, for example, how to protect our country from enemies.

MARTIN: Well, speaking of enemies, Osama bin Laden was buried at sea. He did receive funeral rites according to his tradition but he was buried at sea. The intention, as I understand it, was to avoid having his burial place become an object of veneration or an object of resentment, a symbolic place of importance on either side.

And so that was the solution that the authorities arrived at. I mean do you think that that would be appropriate in this case?

FOX: Well, if that was the choice of the family, fine. But there are other ways to obscure a burial site without having it be the ocean. There are, as I mentioned, other cases of notorious mass murderers who were buried, oftentimes in family plots but it's not quite clear which was their plot. Sometimes in graves that aren't clearly marked. So there are other ways to bury people, if that's their choice, and still avoid any kind of spectacle.

MARTIN: James Fox is a professor of criminology at Northeastern University. He's a columnist for the Boston Globe. Professor Fox, thank you for speaking with us. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.