By all accounts, Peter Stefan has been going about his business of burying the dead for a long time, with little attention outside of Worcester, MA. Now the funeral director is at the center of a controversy because the body of Boston marathon bomber Tamerlan Tsarnaev lies in his funeral home awaiting burial. When news broke that the body was in Worcester protesters lined the streets to register their displeasure with Stefan preparing the body.
It sounds as if the man has been criticized before, if only locally, for bringing the bodies of the world’s undesirables – prostitutes, the destitute, the unwanted – in and treating their bodies with dignity. He said this to the AP about his work:
“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’s what we do.”
Reports have it that now the body has been washed according to religious tradition by the dead man’s uncle, and the issue is where they will bury him. Understandably, certain municipalities do not want the spectacle that would come with what I must distastefully describe as a high-profile grave. But in addition to the elected leaders who are hoping to keep scandal away from their towns, there are plenty of ordinary citizens whose opposition ranges from garden-variety NIMBY-ism to vituperative hatred of the dead man, and a moral certitude about what sinners “deserve”.
I wonder, how many of those who have decided what he deserves would claim to base their condemnation on Christian morality?
Burying the dead is one of the corporal works of mercy. Jesus says love thy enemy and pray for those who persecute you. If people want to ignore these things, they are well within their rights. If pain and trauma prevent us from living these axioms out, that’s allowed too. But anyone who claims to follow Jesus (or other religious traditions with similar precepts) should be honest about what they are rejecting when they claim a person is not worthy of being treated with dignity.
The Gospel is not easy. I struggle with it as much as the next person, but I try my darnedest to make it an honest struggle. I know what’s being asked of me, I know what I’m too broken to accept, and what I’m willfully rejecting. I often find myself deciding a person is not worth of my kindness, or that “fairness” requires they be put in their place, or that I can be the arbiter of mercy.
When Jesus tells me I don’t get to decide my spine stiffens and I want to rebel. But when I let go of judging when I choose to accept that God loves everyone, no exceptions, then I can take the energy I would have spent on judging and use it on mercy, and still have some energy to spare.
For a long time I thought it was easier to go with the flow, to hate the people the world hated, to shout angrily when that seemed chic and to rage along with the crowd. But I’m learning the opposite is easier: to shed the pretension of sinlessness and allow my heart to pour out the tiny draught of mercy that comes from a larger well.
So I pray we can find a way to allow this man the human dignity we all hope to be afforded with a minimum of disruption and pain.