AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Can you separate the sins from the sinners? Peter Stefan said no, but that he took an oath to bury the dead. Lee Harvey Oswald, Timothy McVeigh, Ted Bundy - he listed them all, telling reporters that somebody had to bury them, too. In fact, Lee Harvey Oswald's body is buried in Fort Worth, Texas. The gravestone is marked only by his last name, and cemetery workers are not allowed to direct visitors to its location.
The bodies of McVeigh and Bundy were cremated, which made us wonder: In life, if a man is accused of doing something terrible, what obligation does a society have to his body in death? Well, Thomas Lynch is both a poet and a lifelong undertaker, and he says societies have long grappled with that question.
THOMAS LYNCH: Suicide was long regarded as the sin that could not be forgiven. And back in the - you know, 14th and 15th century, oftentimes the corpses of suicide victims would be buried at the intersections so carts would run them over. There is this sense, with evildoers, that we'd like to do some evil to them; and their deaths prevent that. So the people in Worcester who are making much of this, I think, are speaking to an old, sort of tribal frustration that we can't desecrate the corpse. All we can do is observe that the dead don't care.
CORNISH: But then, what do you make of the question of whether one can separate the sin from the sinner in death?
LYNCH: This is the man who did an evil thing. But his body, his corpse, should be tended to because humans do this. Humans are sort of accountable to the corpses of the dead - not because it matters to the dead but because each of us, as humans, expects to be tended to properly. I mean, this is what separates us from other living things that breed and breathe and die.
CORNISH: At the same time, there are going to be people who hear this and think that maybe it's unfair to ask the city of Cambridge to be the community that accepts his body; that he can be buried, but not there.
LYNCH: Well, you know, there's all sorts of encouragement scripturally and ethics and law, not to over judge lest we be judged. So if we have to take a vote about who gets to be buried in our communities, then this is going to be difficult for an awful lot of former holders of public office and hierarchs and ordinary citizens. To simply say that someone hasn't risen to the occasion suitable to be buried in this cemetery or that, suggests that they're not human; and that is not the case here. This is one of our own kind who did this.
CORNISH: Is there a way that burial within this community would be cathartic, in some way?
LYNCH: The burial of the dead, Audie, is sort of Humanity 101. I'm thinking of a clergyman in our town years ago, Jacob Andrews. We would often call Jake to officiate at the burial of indigents, homeless people who had no one to grieve for them or mourn them or buy them a grave, or what have you. And we would arrange for a grave in the local cemetery.
In all weathers, he would stand over the grave and read all of the rubrics from the Book of Common Prayer that attended the burial of a saint. And I would often think, you know, maybe there's an abbreviated version of this that would get us out of Michigan winters faster, and back into the warm hearse. But Jake said that these are the most important funerals we do - when no one is watching but whomever's in charge here.
He believed strongly in God and God's care for all of his creation, even the ones who are criminal and evil, and off the charts of our approval. I can certainly understand the mix of unfamiliar emotions that attends the handling of the corpse of a person who has done a community the great harm that this man has done. But I think it's like the arguments against torture. If we do it, we become victims of that mindset. And if we don't care for humans - dead humans the way that humans do, we become less human in our refusal.
CORNISH: Thomas Lynch, thank you so much for speaking with us.
LYNCH: Thanks for the chance to, Audie. All the best.
CORNISH: That's Thomas Lynch, author of "The Undertaking: Life Studies From the Dismal Trade."
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CORNISH: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.
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