Monday, May 6, 2013

The Excommunication of Tamerlan Tsarnaev

In 1704, Judge Samuel Sewall presided over the funeral of John Lambert, a convicted pirate who had been executed for his crimes. While murderers and victims of suicide were routinely excluded from Massachusetts burying grounds, Sewall took pity on Lambert's family:
By my Order, the diggers of Mm Paiges Tomb Dugg a Grave for Lambert, where he was laid in the Old burying place Friday night about midnight near some of his Relations: Body was given to his Widow. Son and others made suit to me.
This was not a flashy, public funeral. Sewall buried the pirate at midnight, preventing any sort of spectacle that might have dignified the proceedings. But he did bury him.

When the Winthrop Fleet arrived in Massachusetts in 1630, one of the first legal reforms implemented by the emigrants concerned the establishment and administration of "burying places." At the time, all active graveyards in England were churchyards — consecrated spaces owned by the Church of England and governed by canon law.* Religious dissenters would establish independent burying grounds in the 1660s, but, in 1630, all English subjects could expect to be buried in a churchyard. According to the most recent iteration of canon law (1604), “No minister shall refuse or delay . . . to bury any corpse that is brought to the Church or Churchyard.” Even people who had “lived and died most profanely, more like a very atheist and a gross infidel, than like any Christian at all,” were afforded sacramental burial, though Church officials permitted ministers to use their “wisdom and discretion” in tempering some of the more effusive prayers in the Common Prayer burial service.

They did allow an exception: churchyards should refuse to bury people who had been excommunicated for "some grievous and notorious crime." This usually meant suicide or murder. But it also applied to obnoxious and outspoken dissenters like the Baptist minister Samuel Howe. When Howe died in 1640, no churchyard would take his body, so “his Friends were forced to lay his Body in the High-way, as one which was numbred amongst the Transgressors.” It was an ignominious end, but the only one available to people who could not be admitted to the Church of England's sacred churchyards.

Unlike the churchyards they had known in England, graveyards in Massachusetts were municipally owned and operated. They were not formally consecrated and ministers did not lead funeral services, nor say prayers at the graveside. This rejection of the English churchyard was part of a larger effort by the emigrant generation to purge elements of Church practice that smacked of vestigial Catholicism, including sacramental marriage, burial, the practice of appointing godparents, and the custom of "churching" women after childbirth.


Massachusetts graveyards continued to exclude executed criminals and victims of suicide. This was not true 100% of the time — I have written before about Samuel Sewall's involvement with burying people who died under these circumstances.  Where the churchyard implied that the entire community belonged to the established Church, the municipal burying ground made no distinctions based on denomination (or race, or even religion, necessarily), accepting all members of the civic community. Exclusion from the common burying ground was exclusion from the body politic, not from the church membership.

It is with this history in mind that I have been reading accounts of the Tsarnaev family's difficulty in finding a cemetery to accept the body of Boston bomber Tamerlan Tsarnaev. While they have found a philanthropic funeral home director in Peter Stefan of Worcester, they have not yet been able to find a cemetery — public or private — that is willing to bury Tsarnaev. Cambridge City Manager Robert W. Healy has announced that he will not permit Tsarnaev to be buried in Cambridge's municipal cemetery:
The difficult and stressful efforts of the residents of the City of Cambridge to return to a peaceful life, would be adversely impacted by the turmoil, protests and wide spread media presence at such an interment . . . The families of loved ones interred in the Cambridge Cemetery also deserve to have their deceased family members rest in peace.
In a city like ours, where the residents share no single language, religion, or ethnic background, it seems that exclusion from municipal burial is the last way we have to excommunicate someone.

I understand Healy's reasoning. But, at the same time, the thing that stands out to me in these press accounts has been the compassion of Peter Stefan. He has dedicated his professional life to burying society's outcasts — people who are homeless or destitute or drug-addicted or criminals or otherwise civilly excommunicated. In the present situation, he has decided to take Tsarnaev's case because someone has to do it. ‘‘My problem here is trying to find a gravesite. A lot of people don’t want to do it. They don’t want to be involved with this,’’he told reporters, noting that he took an oath to bury all of the dead with dignity. It's understandable that others do not want to get involved — Stefan's funeral home has been inundated with angry protesters.

The impulse to excommunicate is strong. It's the last way we can condemn someone who has injured our community. But in focusing on whether Tamerlan Tsarnaev deserves a dignified burial, the protesters outside Peter Stefan's office are missing the Grace of his response. He's not burying Tsarnaev because Tsarnaev deserves it, but because Stefan is giving him the free gift of dignity that he extends to everyone. I'm not Catholic anymore, but I was raised Catholic, and I would like to see some Catholic cemetery somewhere offer to bury Tsarnaev, not because he deserves it, but because it is a powerful statement of the forgiveness that Catholics believe is an absolute mandate from God.

Samuel Sewall hated Catholics. He feared them so much that he once snuck out of a meeting because he was afraid that the others present might adjourn in order to attend a funeral where the Book of Common Prayer and its Catholic-lite prayers would be read, and he didn't want to be swept along to such an affair. But Samuel Sewall also buried John Lambert, the pirate. In the dark, in secret, but he buried him all the same. Sewall is not remembered for his role in burying Lambert — if anyone remembers his name today, it is usually because he was one of the judges who presided over the Salem Witch Trials. He was also the only one to issue a public apology, standing before the congregation of Old South Church and humbling himself for his role in perpetrating injustice. There are worse footsteps to follow.


*There was a medieval Jewish cemetery in London, but since England had expelled Jews from the country in 1290 and would not re-admit them until 1656, it was not officially recognized as an active burying place in the pre-Civil War era. There were a few non-parochial churchyards, like "New Churchyard" on the grounds of Bedlam Hospital, but these were still formally consecrated and subject to canon law.

3 comments:

Roy said...

Excellent post, Caitlin! I agree completely. And thanks for the history of the politics of burial. Very interesting!

charleyross said...

This is quite lovely and I totally agree with it.

Tamerlan may need to be cremated and his ashes scattered somewhere, though I'm not sure that's allowed under Muslim law. Theo Durrant, a multiple murderer from California who was executed about a century ago, if I remember right no cemetery would accept his body either.

Graveyard Walker said...

I don't want to detract from a serious and well-presented post, but those interested in seeing an English churchyard accommodation for Sir Joseph Danvers and his dog could look up 'Swithland' (a major source of headstone raw material) in Wikipedia.