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Even Criminals Rest in Peace

What would Jewish law have to say about alleged Boston Marathon bomber Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s burial?

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From left, on May 5, 2013, Lisa Taurasi, Lucy Rodriguez and Luis Barbosa, all of Worcester, Mass., protest across the street from Graham Putnam & Mahoney Funeral Parlors in Worcester, Mass., where the body of Boston Marathon bombing suspect Tamerlan Tsarnaev was being held. (Betty Jenewin/Worcester Telegram & Gazette/AP)
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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.


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What happened to “Innocent until proven Guilty” America? Considering President Kennedy was probably assassinated by our own Government, I’ll wait on judgement until after the verdict.

This young man will not be buried in Arlington. First off, there’s not an American on this planet (who isn’t seeking peace in her own bereavement) who will stand for that, guilty or not. Secondly, remember his religion. Take this opportunity to investigate his religion and glean the knowledge it will take to prevent your dander from going up in the future. Knowledge is power.

Go home.

    they will buried the creature, but I for one could understand how somebody would not want him buried next to one of their family members. This silliness not proven guilty . They have him on film. With there bombs the shootout with police is guilty as sin. He and his brother are Looney tune Moslem terrorists. Like it’s unheard of for Looney Tunes Muslims to murder people. My G-d, I think you are just as dangerous as these crazy bombers this young man . You said like you’re trying to give him honor humanity. When he showed no humanity . PS. President Kennedy was shot by left-wing Marxists Castro lover that was proven by the Warren commission only in make-believe imaginary worlds evil US government kills Kennedy

The ‘problem’ is, he is not a criminal – he is not a human being so he shouldn’t be treated as such.

    GeoffreyDennis says:

    Interesting that you understand what is and isn’t human better than the HolyBlessed One.

He murdered and maimed so many innocent people and we don’t need a trial to KNOW that. The people of Boston are disgusted AND RIGHTLY SO, they are also human beings with NATURAL HUMAN FEELINGS towards this MURDERER, What about the feelings and DIGNITY of those who had to bury their CHILDREN?!

    Papa493 says:

    “If it were ANY of your children or family members i am SURE you would want people to use their COMMON SENSE instead of saying he was not tried and convicted .”

    Absolutely right. And that’s why family members of victims cannot serve on juries that try the accused.

I am so glad that you wrote this, because if I hadn’t seen it I would have written it somewhere. However, I have a feeling that many or most who are protesting the US burial of his body do not care about/for Jewish law.
My main concern was the very possible reality of someone making it into a shrine; i am sure there will be those who will glorify him and hold him as a holy martyr. But that will happen anywhere. A subset of that concern is the opposite: people coming to spit upon or otherwise desecrate his grave, also a very real possibility here, and probably in many other places.
The bottom line (and you said it so well in your suggestion of what should be written on the marker)–he was a human (who did unhuman things, as so many do, and did not live up to his potential as a child of G-d) and was created btzelem Elokim, in the ‘image’/reflection of G-d, and so should just be buried. Let G-d deal with his soul, and may his memory— the reflection and trace and even any similarity of his actions- be erased.

Denise, listen to yourself. Don’t you sound like an uncivilized barbarian? Sure do to me. This is exactly the sort of thing that the Torah rants again, over and over again, and it was written millenia ago. For shame. .

brian2907 says:

The correct course of action would have been burial at sea- beyond US territorial waters as was Osama Bin Laden. You speak of Israel’s treatment of terrorist cadavers but don’t forget Eichmann was cremated and the ashes scattered beyond Israel’s territorial waters.

    Yechiel Gordon says:

    If we were a nation of law, then the correct course of action would have been for the US to take responsibility for having recruited bin Laden, paid him for his first terrorist act — killing 22 schoolchildren — and bringing him to trial along with Zbibniew Brzezinski, George Bush and other officials who aided and abetted him during his illustrious career.

      herbcaen says:

      since we are not a nation of law, perhaps you should move to a country that is.

        Yechiel Gordon says:

        My concerns there are two: First, that I would not have a chance to engage the freedoms I enjoy in the US in order to make my voice heard, if even to a small extent. Second, that I would become a victim of US foreign policy.

          herbcaen says:

          Seems a little hypocritical to me. If I am reading you correctly, America is based upon injustice. If you are enjoying “freedoms”, and those “freedoms” are based upon injustice, then you are a direct beneficiary of injustice, no different than Swiss bankers who profited off of Holocaust gold

Yechiel Gordon says:

The bodies of mass murderers and war criminals like Ariel Sharon, Menachem Begin,
Yitzhak Rabin and Henry Kissinger are provided with burial plots. No reason, then, not to provide one to a person who a) is not proven to be a killer and b) deserves treatment at least equal that of known murderers.

There is a better halakhah. The name of the wicked will be forgotten. Dump him in the sea if you must, otherwise burn his body to dust, but by no means apportion part of the earth for him.

    GeoffreyDennis says:

    The Mishna and the Talmud refute you. Even the enemies of Israel merited burial. Not for the honor of the criminal, but out of respect for the divine image the criminal still bears. It is hard to be a Jew, especially the compassion and restraint that is demanded of us.

At least burial returns to the earth mortal remains. These remains are not any person. The “person” ended with life, and the soul is the perogative of a power greater than ours. I could not fathom the demonstrative resistance to the burial of this dead terrorist. To compare him to Osama ben Ladin and his burial at sea is incongruous. Ben Ladin’s circumstances involved the prevention of giving a place where people can make of him a “martyr” similar to what happened to Baruch Goldstein who gunned down Muslims at prayer until he was physically overcome. Tamerlan is no Ben Ladin nor is he a Goldstein. He is a pathetic nothing, and all we can now hope from his remains is a more fertile earth. His remains is not the makings of a monument.

cub scout mom says:

powerful article. incredibly powerful ending. yes, you are correct. we need to remember that we are humans. that everyone is born in hashem’s image and has potential for good. unfortunately some are teased and misdirected by snakes along the way. but we hope their victims rest in peace.
thank you for remindnig us of this.
shabbat shalom.


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Even Criminals Rest in Peace

What would Jewish law have to say about alleged Boston Marathon bomber Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s burial?

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