Burying Tsarnaev

Law and Order


But turn your eyes to the valley; there we shall find

the river of boiling blood in which we are steeped

all who struck down their fellow men. -Inferno, Canto XII II. 46-48


Pyriphlegethon is the third of the five infernal rivers coursing through the mythic Greek underworld. It was described by Plato as a channel of fire, wrapping around the earth on its descent into Tartarus. Dante witnessed Pyriphlegethon’s horrors in the seventh circle of Hell, where murderers and all those who acted violently towards their neighbors forever remained partially submerged in a flaming river of boiling blood. As told in the Inferno, Pyriphlegethon’s lava would rise to a height on the tortured’s body somehow equal to the heinousness of the crime. It is cold comfort to the surviving victims of the Boston marathon bombings to imagine Tamerlan Tsarnaev suffering in perpetual agony, perhaps only the crown of his head breaking the surface of the terrible river.


Eternal justice, however vividly imagined, cannot be demonstrated, and dogma does not sate the inevitable thirst for revenge. The satisfaction of the desire to revenge is the function of temporal justice, a process interrupted when Tamerlan Tsarnaev perished in a hail of bullets. Thus the fierce resistance to the prospect that the body of "that terrorist" might share, in the short interim between interment and decay, the same New England soil as his victims. With no prospect of temporal justice for Tamerlan Tsarnaev, vengeance has been left to exhaust itself on his corpse.


How else to explain the need to reassert eternal truisms: “A dead person needs to be buried.” The act of burial—the preparation of the corpse and the ceremony attending interment—is a practice of communion with the dead, a reassertion of the connection between the departed and the living community. Denying Tsarnaev an eternal home in any of the landscaped cemeteries around Boston is to deny him posthumous membership in the community he betrayed; it is not to deny a murderer, but a traitor. Treachery, in Dante’s taxonomy, so irrevocably transgressed the set of obligations binding members of a community that traitors were fated to an even more terrible punishment than the murderers steeping in the river Pyriphlegethon. Condemned to the ninth circle of Hell, it is the destiny of traitors to spend eternity encased up to their necks in the frozen waters of Cocytus, a horror for which even Dante lacks the "harsh and grating rhymes" to describe.


Sophocles Antigone addresses specifically the ethical difficulties surrounding the burial of traitors in antiquity. After the usurper Polynices and his brother Eteocles kill each other on the plain beyond the seventh gate of Thebes it is ruled by Creon, ascendant to Eteocles’ throne, that upon pain of death the corpse of the traitorous brother should remain unburied. Antigone, sister of the deceased brothers, feeling this an affront to the gods, vows to break Creon’s law, and is later caught digging a grave by hand in the shadow of the rotting remains of her brother. The tragedy culminates in the condemned Antigone’s suicide, throwing the rule of the Creon into turmoil.


Sophocles’ work continues to be instructive for its ability to show in stark relief the contesting obligations that crisscross public and private life. The law of Creon must fall before Antigone’s obligation to Polynices: she must bury her brother. Insofar as burial is that act in which the living and the dead commune most immediately, it must be included as one of those innumerable private obligations upon which law rests. The traitor, transgressor of public and private alike, must nevertheless be buried, lest the kingdom fall into turmoil. This is the sentiment unknowingly expressed by Peter Stefan, owner of the funeral parlor holding the elder Tsarnaev brother’s body: “We take an oath to do this. Can I pick and choose? No. Can I separate the sins from the sinners? No. We’re burying a dead body. That’s what we do.” Although Mr. Stefan speaks only for Graham, Putnam, & Maloney Funeral Parlors, it must be equally true for the larger "We"– the human community of the living and the dead. We must bury the dead. Doing so allows us to transcend the brutal materiality of existence; failing to do so, especially if accompanied by the public declarations of refusal that dogged attempts to bury Tamerlan Tsarnaev, threatens to throw into turmoil the whole set of relations founded on the most intimate, ultimate obligation. 


Follow Chris on Twitter @EndoftheNight


Antigone, Burial, Dante, Justice, Philosophy, Sophocles, Terrorism