Tobit, And Tamerlan: The Dignity of Burial

No one wants the body of marathon bomber Tamerlan Tsarnaev. His uncle Ruslan, who seems to be the only sensible member of the family, finally stepped forward to claim it, saying “A dead person needs to be buried.”

Meanwhile, a petty tyrant named Robert W. Healy, City Manager of Cambridge, intends to block any attempt to bury this killer in the city, asserting this hitherto unknown power with this glib, lawless, and offensive statement: “Under the State Law, … ‘it shall be the duty of the city manager to act as chief conservator of the peace within the city,’ I have determined that it is not interest of “peace within the city” to execute a cemetery deed for a plot within the Cambridge Cemetery for the body of Tamerlin Tsarnaev.”

Welcome to America, 2013: where a bureaucrat feels no reluctance about asserting non-existent powers in order to trample the religious sensibilities of the vast majority of American citizens.

And I say the “vast majority,” because if you’re a Christian, Jew, or Muslim, the reverent treatment of the dead–both the wicked and the just, but especially the wicked–is a matter of divine law.

If I lived in Cambridge, I’d dig the grave the myself.

I’d be in good company.

Tobit burying the dead.

Tobit was a righteous man. His story is told in the book of the Bible that bears his name, and which is commonly counted among the Deuterocanonical books because they were part of the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible), but not part of the later Hebrew Bible.

Tobit is a man who performs many acts of charity, but the most dangerous is his burial of the dead, particularly strangers, and, notably, those who have been executed.

And if Sennacherib the king put to death any who came fleeing from Judea, I buried them secretly. For in his anger he put many to death. When the bodies were sought by the king, they were not found. Then one of the men of Nineveh went and informed the king about me, that I was burying them; so I hid myself. When I learned that I was being searched for, to be put to death, I left home in fear. Then all my property was confiscated and nothing was left to me except my wife Anna and my son Tobias. (Tobit 1:18-20)

Tobit is able to return home after the death of Sennacherib, but he continues to bury the dead. When he returns, he makes a nice feast, and gives an order to his son, Tobias, with echoes of Luke 14:13:

“Go and bring whatever poor man of our brethren you may find who is mindful of the Lord, and I will wait for you.” But he came back and said, “Father, one of our people has been strangled and thrown into the market place.” So before I tasted anything I sprang up and removed the body to a place of shelter until sunset. And when I returned I washed myself and ate my food in sorrow. Then I remembered the prophecy of Amos, how he said, “Your feasts shall be turned into mourning, and all your festivities into lamentation.” And I wept. When the sun had set I went and dug a grave and buried the body.  And my neighbors laughed at me. (Tobit 2:2-8)

Touching the dead rendered one impure for a period of time. Although it was a necessary thing to do, performing the act for strangers is a profound act of charity. Indeed, Tobit is forced to sleep outside after performing the burial because he is impure, and he winds up blind as a result.

Some of the bodies buried by Tobit have been cast “beyond the wall,” where the unjust would have been thrown. It’s interesting to note, however, that the only place in the law where rapid burial is explicitly commanded is in the case of criminals who have been executed:

‎“And if a man has committed a crime punishable by death and he is put to death, and you hang him on a tree, his body shall not remain all night upon the tree, but you shall bury him the same day, for a hanged man is accursed by God; you shall not defile your land which the Lord your God gives you for an inheritance. Deuteronomy 21:22–23

This passage, of course, becomes extremely relevant in the story of Joseph of Arimathea in the New Testament, where Joseph is considered righteous because he tends to the proper burial of Jesus.

Why does Tobit do it, particularly as such great risk to himself? He makes it quite clear: it’s a central act of charity. He does three things that are righteous: gives bread to the hungry, clothes the naked, buries the dead (Tobit 1:17).

Are any of these beginning to sound a bit familiar? Because you’ve been ordered to do them, too:

  • Feed the hungry.
  • Clothe the naked.
  • Bury the dead.
  • Give drink to the thirsty.
  • Give sheltered to the homeless.
  • Visit the sick.
  • Ransom the captive.

You’ll note the name of these acts–corporal works of mercy–comes from the Latin root corpus, for body, the source of the English word corpse.

There’s nothing in there about “burying the nice folks.” The command to bury the unrighteous is partly a matter of preventing contamination of the land, but it’s also interpreted as something due to any human created in the image of God. (I’ve written a whole series on how bodies and burial were handled in ancient Israel: a major focus of my study during a semester on the OT. This entry in particular summarizes Jewish attitudes toward the dead from a Biblical perspective.)

Mortality entered the world through sin. The person who handled the dead was therefore in the realm of death and sin. That’s why the person handling a corpse is considered impure for a time, but is also considered righteous. They are cleaning up the mess made by the sin of man, and in a very real sense doing close battle with that sin. It takes courage. It takes faith.

We don’t treat our enemies with dignity for their sake, but for our own, and because God commands it. I didn’t know Tamerlan Tsarnaev, and he did not kill any member of my family or community. My reaction if he had would be considerably more complex and challenging, but no different in the end. The dead, the wounded, and their families will deal with the actions of this wicked man for the rest of their lives. He unleashed evil in the world, and his punishment is in the hands of the One who always judges justly.

That punishment is no longer our concern. Only the living are our concern, except inasmuch as we pray for the souls of the faithful departed. Only our reactions matter: what we do with hate, and how we respond to evil. It’s the key thing that makes us different as Christians. It’s not that we don’t fight, or that we don’t have enemies, or that we don’t recognize the evil festering in our midst. We must do all those things. We can even hate, because sometimes hate is remarkably clarifying.

But in the end, when we have to act, it must be in faith, in hope, and in charity. One of the key lessons of Jesus is that we must not tend downward with our enemies, but upward towards the Father. He is our model, and he asks nothing less than that we be perfect. The works of mercy benefit the world because they are proof of life, and a light in the darkness. The worse the darkness, the harder it can be to get that light shining, but it becomes even more imperative that we do so.

Evil is an absence: a corrosion of the Good. It has no true existence. The only possible response to it is goodness, not more evil. We have to fill up that emptiness. Eventually, we have to set down the hate, which brings only more darkness, and fill the darkness with charity, which is the light of Christ.

My blog neighbor Max Lindenman says that a graduate of Yale Divinity School is offering a plot for Tsarnaev, which is just as it should be. We bury the dead–even the unrighteous–not merely for the sake of the dead, but for our own soul’s sake, and to glorify God, whose light shines on the just and unjust alike. We are called to be that light, and we can’t be particular about where we choose to shine.