Of all the heroism we've witnessed in the Boston Marathon bombing and its aftermath, that displayed by funeral director Peter Stefan doesn't rank among the brave behavior shown by first responders and the runners who helped their fallen competitors. But Stefan's quiet, determined commitment to American values deserves to be lauded nonetheless.
Stefan accepted the distasteful but necessary task of accepting the body of accused bomber Tamerlan Tsarnaev for burial. Funeral work, certainly, is a grim business all the way around, but dealing with the remains of a man accused of causing death and dismemberment at one of Boston's most beloved events must require a particular strength.
Yet this is what we do in America; this is who we are. We show respect not just for the dead, but for the very profound transition from life to death. We do it by honoring myriad religious traditions. We do it by treating a lifeless body with some reverence. It's part of what makes us a civilized society.
And yet Stefan, who was simply doing his job, has been harassed by people who think Tsarnaev has no business being buried on U.S. soil. They protested outside his Worcester, Mass. funeral home, yelling "USA!" or "throw him off a boat like Osama bin Laden!" Stefan has been rejected by Massachusetts cemeteries as he has sought to find a place to put Tsarnaev into the ground. And despite receiving phone calls from people calling him "un-American," Stefan has bravely upheld an important American tradition: treating death, and the dead, with solemn respect, no matter who the deceased person is. Said Stefan:
We take an oath to do this. Can I pick and choose? No. Can I separate the sins from the sinners? No. We are burying a dead body. That is what we do.
One wonders what the protesters would prefer. It is a dead body, and there is a public health issue at stake. What would they suggest – leaving the decomposing corpse out for the buzzards, or for angry citizens to defile? Isn't that exactly the sort of behavior we criticize in other parts of the world? If you want to stoke support for terrorism, that's one way to do it.
Yes, it would be more convenient if Tsarnaev's parents in Dagestan were to bring his body back to the Russian republic. But they aren't doing so. And while it would be in many ways preferable not to have a lifeless reminder of the attack right here on U.S. soil, burying Tsarnaev abroad could make his grave a horrific shrine for terrorists and would-be terrorists.
Other nations and cultures have dealt with this. When the Romanian people shot former dictator Nicolai Ceausescu and his wife (on Christmas morning, no less), they buried them in Bucharest, without fanfare. The graves did not become rallying points. Travelers to Romania in the 1990s would find it hard to locate the burial plots, since Romanians were not eager to talk about the despised leader. In fact, Ceausescu's body was exhumed several years ago in part to assure skeptics that it was, in fact, him. They buried the man, as civilized societies do, honoring death without honoring the memory of the man himself.
The lingering damage from a terrorist attack is the threat to our way of life, and the civilized traditions we uphold, whether they involve legal protections or respect for the dignity of life itself. Stefan is protecting the latter.