Boston Bombing Suspect Tamerlan Tsarnaev Rejected for Burial in Cambridge, Massachusetts

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This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Audio Transcript:

Marco Werman: I'm Marco Werman and this is The World, a coproduction of the BBC World Service, PRI and WGBH in Boston. Three weeks after the city was stunned by the blast near the Boston Marathon finish line, the body of deceased suspect Tamerlan Tsarnaev has yet to be buried. An uncle has claimed the remains currently inside a funeral home in Worcester, west of Boston. Funeral director Peter Stefan is trying to find a cemetery that would accept the body, but it's been difficult, as Stefan told reporters from The Worcester Telegraph and Gazette yesterday.

Peter Stefan: The guy has to be buried. In this country we bury people, whatever it is. And people ask oh, you'd bury Hitler and Stalin? Yes, absolutely, I'm not gonna be inconsistent with it; we bury the dead, that's it.

Werman: City officials in Cambridge, where Tamerlan Tsarnaev lived, officials have refused to allow his burial there, and they're not alone in not wanting to get involved. We made several calls to Muslim religious leaders in the Boston area, some of whom have themselves declined to help in the Tsarnaev burial, but none of them called back. We had to go as far as Winnipeg in Canada to find a Muslim leader willing to speak with us about this. Shahina Siddiqui is president of the Islamic Social Services Association in Winnipeg. She says she's upset by the problems the family is having in finding a resting place for the Boston bombing suspect.

Shahina Siddiqui: I'm quite sad about this development because I really feel that regardless of how a person has lived their lives, everyone should get the last rites, even for murderers, even serial killers. They get their last rites, right? So I think it's important that we remember that the gentleman is with God and he will have to answer for his actions. And as a Muslim we believe in Heaven and Hell as well, right, like real places. So God knows where he is going to end up. I know people are angry and people are afraid, but I think we have to rise above this negativity and just quietly do what we have to do and leave the judgement to God.

Werman: Tell us what is involved in giving last rites in Muslim tradition.

Siddiqui: It's very simple. It's a washing of the body, a ritual washing. Then the body is wrapped in white cotton sheets and then a prayer is said over. There is no prostration or bowing in the funeral prayer. It takes not more than five minutes. You first recite the opening chapter of the Koran in the first section. The second session you would call on God to forgive and have mercy on all Muslims who've gone before and who are to follow. And then you send salvation on the prophet Muhammad and on prophet Abraham and his progeny, and that's it.

Werman: Are there different interpretations of the ritual that vary from country to country or from group to group?

Siddiqui: No, this is the basic. Some may add something to it. For example, in North America we bring the body to the mosque for the funeral prayer and then we proceed to the cemetery. In most Muslim countries the prayer is done right at the place of burial.

Werman: Where were those rules prescribed? Is it in the Koran?

Siddiqui: They are in the Koran and they also have been further explained and demonstrated by the prophet. So the Koran will tell you you have to bury your dead as soon as possible, right, like under the Jewish tradition, cremation is not permitted. The prophet also said to have unmarked graves, so if you go to Saudi Arabia, the graves are not marked.

Werman: So do you look at what's happening here in the Boston area and the controversy over Tamerlan Tsarnaev and what to do with him, people have been coming up with various reasons on why he should not be buried. Do you just look at those as excuses?

Siddiqui: I look at them as knee jerk reactions. Who are we to take on the role of God and decided you know, dust to dust, we all have to go. What kind of eternal life he has whether in Heaven or Hell is up to God to decide. But I think this is a dangerous recipe to condemn, because what we are actually saying is he wasn't a good enough Muslim, or we don't accept him as a Muslim or any other faith and we will decide how his last rites will be done. And I think where do you stop? Tomorrow we could say alcoholics, and after, you know, wife abusers. So I think that's a slippery slope. I can see that there's a lot of fear in the Boston community and people are afraid of backlash against the mosque if it carries or the imam if he carries it on, but I think instead of making it into such a big deal, if it was done quietly…and also, you know, we are only thinking of him right now. We also have to think about his family that needs to move on.

Werman: Have you ever encountered a case like this where the subject is socially reprehensible to the point no one will accept the corpse?

Siddiqui: I have had this experience because I do the washing and relative care as a volunteer. And I have come in a situation where I was questioned why we were giving a Muslim a funeral who was known to be an alcoholic all his life and never practiced the faith. And my answer to them was how do you know that the last breath he did not seek forgiveness? Can anybody guarantee me that? And so we went ahead and we did the funeral.

Werman: Shahina Siddiqui, president of the Islamic Social Services Association in Winnipeg, Canada. Thanks so much for your time.

Siddiqui: You're welcome.