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Unburied: Tamerlan

Tsarnaev and the Lessons of Greek

Tragedy By By Da n i e l Me n d e l s o h nDa n i e l Me n d e l s o h n May 14, 2013

“Bury this terrorist on U.S. soil and we will unbury him.”

So ran the bitter slogan on one of the signs borne last week by enraged protesters outside the Worcester, Massachusetts, funeral home that had agreed to receive the body of the accused Boston Marathon bomber Tamerlan Tsarnaev—a cadaver seemingly so morally polluted that his own widow would not claim it, that no funeral director would touch it, that no cemetery would bury it. Indeed, even after Peter Stefan, a Worcester funeral director, had washed and shrouded the battered, bullet-ridden body for burial according to Muslim law, the cadaver became the object of a macabre game of civic and political football. Cemetery officials and community leaders in the Boston area were concerned that a local burial would spark civic unrest. (“It is not in the best interest of ‘peace within the city’ to execute a cemetery deed,” the Cambridge city manager, Robert Healy, .) While the state’s governor carefully sidestepped the issue, asserting that it was a family matter, other politicians seemed to sense an advantage in catering to the high popular feeling. “If the people of Massachusetts do not want that terrorist to be buried on our soil,” declared Representative Edward J. Markey, a Democratic candidate for the U.S. Senate, “then it should not be.”

And so it went until late last week, when —due to the intervention of Martha Mullen, a Richmond, Virginia, woman who’d been following the story, a practicing Christian who cited Jesus’s injunction to “love our enemies” as her inspiration—Tsarnaev’s body was “nally transported to a tiny Muslim cemetery in rural Virginia, and interred there in an unmarked grave. Until then, the corpse had languished for over two weeks—not only unburied but, in a way, unburiable. In one of several updates it published on the grisly affair, quoted Ray Madoff, a Boston law professor who specializes in “what she calls the law of the dead,” about the case. “There is no precedent for this type of thing,” Madoff told a reporter. “It is a legal no-man’s land.”

A legal no-man’s land, perhaps, but familiar territory to anyone even casually acquainted with the Greek classics. From its epic dawn to its tragic high noon, Greek literature expressed tremendous cultural anxiety about what happens when the dead are left unburied. In part, the issue was a religious one: the souls of the dead were thought to be stranded, unable to reach the underworld without proper burial. (And without a proper tomb, or sêma—a “sign” or grave marker —a dead person could not hope for postmortem recognition, some sign that he or she had once lived and died.) The religious prohibition had civic consequences: refusal to bury the dead was considered an affront to the gods and could bring ritual pollution on the community. The right of all sides to bury soldiers who had fallen in battle was a convention of war; burial truces were regularly granted. In myth, even characters who act more like terrorists than like soldiers—for instance, the great warrior Ajax, who plots to assassinate his commanding officers but ends up dead himself—are deemed worthy of burial in the end. Which is to say, even the body of the enemy was sacrosanct.

This preoccupation with the implications of burial and non-burial haunts a number of the greatest works of Greek literature. The opening lines of , the oldest extant work of Western poetry, refer with pointed revulsion to the possibility that the bodies of the warriors who died at Troy could become the “delicate pickings of birds and dogs”; indeed you might say that getting the dead buried—even the reviled, enemy dead—is the principle object of the epic’s grand narrative arc. Fifteen thousand lines after that opening reference to unburied corpses, the poem closes, magni”cently, with a scene of reconciliation between the grief- maddened Achilles—who has daily de”led the unburied body of his mortal enemy, Hector, dragging it back and forth through the dirt before the walls of Troy —and Hector’s aged father, the Trojan king, Priam. In a gesture of redemption for himself as much as for the Trojans, Achilles “nally agrees to release the body for burial. The gigantic epic ends not (as some “rst-time readers expect) with the Wooden Horse, or the Fall of Troy, but with the all-important funeral of the greatest of the Greeks’ enemies—a rite of burial that allows the Trojans to mourn their prince and, in a way, the audience to “nd closure after the unrelenting violence that has preceded. The work’s “nal line is as plain, and as “nal, as the sound of dirt on the lid of a coffin. “This was the funeral of Hector, tamer of horses.”

As for the Odyssey, it, too—for all its emphasis on its fantastical, proto-sci-” adventures—reveals a telling preoccupation with this issue. The great adventure epic features an extended visit to the underworld, where, among other things, the $itting shades of the dead express anxiety about their own funerals (and where Odysseus learns how he himself will die, many years hence, “from the sea”); precisely at the poem’s midpoint, Odysseus dutifully halts his homeward journey—and the epic’s narrative momentum—to bury, with full honors, the body of a young sailor who has died in a clumsy accident, as if to say that even the most hapless and pointless of deaths merits the dignity of ritual. And in the work’s “nal, culminating book, Homer slips in the information, ostensibly en passant but of course crucial, that the bodies of the hated suitors—whose gory deaths we are, to some extent, invited to savor, given their gross outrages against Odysseus and his family—were duly permitted to be retrieved by their families for burial.

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But no work of ancient literature is as obsessed with unburied bodies as Sophocles’ “Antigone,” a tragedy “rst produced in Athens around 442 B.C.: the entire plot centers on the controversy over how a community that has survived a deadly attack will dispose of the body of the perpetrator of that attack—the body, as it happens, of a young man who had planned to bring destruction on the city that had been his home, who “sought to consume the city with “re…sought to taste blood.”

The young man in question is Polyneices, a son of the late, spectacularly ill-fated king Oedipus who, after a power struggle with his brother Eteocles, $ed the city, eventually returning with an invading army (the “Seven Against Thebes”) to make war on his homeland. At a climactic moment in the battle, the two brothers slay each other, but the invasion is ultimately repelled and the city saved. In the opening lines of the play, we learn that the body of Eteocles, the defender of the city, has been buried with full honors, but, according to a decree promulgated by the new king, Creon (who is the young men’s uncle), no one, under pain of death, may bury or mourn Polyneices, whose corpse is to be left “unwept, unsepulchered, a treasure to feast on for birds looking out for a dainty meal.” (The particular horror, expressed from the Iliad on down, that humans could become the food of the animals we normally eat ourselves is noteworthy: a strong signal of a total inversion in the scheme of things of which the unburied body, the corpse that remains above rather than below ground, is a symptom.)

Creon, like the Senate candidate from Massachusetts, cares a great deal about public opinion, as we later learn; but it’s certainly possible to argue that his edict is grounded in a strong if idiosyncratic morality. When confronted about his rationale for enshrining in the city’s law what is, after all, a religious abomination, the king declares that Polyneices’ crime against the city has put the young man beyond morality—that while burial of any dead is a religious obligation, it is impossible to imagine that “the gods have care for this corpse,” that one might ever see “the gods honoring the wicked.” As he sputters his “nal line in this debate, you sense that he is acting out of a genuine, if narrow, conviction that evil men do not merit human treatment: “It cannot be.” (“It should not be”:

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