The Morgue That Handles Bodies No One Else Wants—Even the Boston Bomber
‘We turn down nobody,’ says the owner of the Worcester, Massachusetts, funeral home that took in Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s body when no one else would.
On Sunday, Boston mourned the fifth anniversary of the Boston Marathon bombing with a city-wide moment of silence. The 2013 terrorist attack killed three and injured hundreds; the resulting efforts to hunt down the suspects, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and Tamerlan Tsarnaev, left an MIT policeman dead and two officers severely injured. Tamerlan Tsarnaev was killed during a police shootout, and Dzhokhar was eventually located and taken into custody. The attack and ensuing manhunt have continued to hold us captive in the days, months, and years since.
Boston’s unrestrained mourning and the nationwide cry for justice have given way to documentaries and film adaptations, retellings that zoom in and out, contextualizing the attack, dramatizing the manhunt, and capturing survivors’ efforts to heal in the aftermath.
But one story, a quieter one, is the subject of a new documentary short making its premiere at the 2018 Tribeca Film Festival. It begins at the moment of Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s death, when the rest of the world’s attention had largely shifted to his brother. Peter Stefan, the director and owner of Graham, Putnam & Mahoney’s funeral parlor in Worcester, Massachusetts, suddenly found himself playing a minor role in the national drama. Stefan and his team took in Tamerlan’s body, and were tasked with putting back together what was left of him. As protestors raged outside, they prepared the corpse for burial.
Everything Is Stories’ “Reviled and Maligned” takes the time to flesh out the story of Stefan and his funeral parlor, adding context and nuance far beyond what was afforded by the fast-paced post-atrocity news cycle. Behind the sign announcing “Graham Putnam & Mahoney’s” is a well-worn building slowly buckling under years of strain. Tours of somber halls reveal typical funereal decor—glowing wood, flowered wallpaper, and Jesus figurines.
Stefan incessantly smokes a pipe as he talks about his business’s unique positioning and clientele. Amidst shots of a dank and cluttered embalming room, Lysol wipes, and the gritty surrounding neighborhood, Stefan explains the parlor’s reputation for serving the poor, catering to an ethnically and religiously diverse community, and, above all, tackling seemingly “impossible” situations. “We’ve had gangster funerals…We bury traitors, we bury mass murderers. In other words, we turn down nobody.” To subsidize this charitable spirit, Stefan reportedly has to host a funeral almost every day.
Weeks after Tamerlan Tsarnaev was shot and killed, his body remained unburied. Nobody wanted to deal with the corpse or the controversy that trailed it. The proprietors of the nearby Mercadante Funeral Home—the self-described “Four Seasons” of funeral parlors—explained that they probably wouldn’t have taken the body. The funeral home where Tsarnaev was originally sent quickly rejected the responsibility, with the owner expressing fear that protestors would “burn their building down.” Stefan, who has made a name for himself as a compassionate funeral director and option for people “who have no alternatives,” recalled following the aftermath of the Boston bombing with particular interest. “When I saw it on TV, I was sure that I’d be called to do it,” he remembered, adding that he knew the Muslim community well and “they know me. And I know the customs.”
Stefan felt that the decision to initially move the body with a police escort and helicopter had called far too much attention to it. He coordinated with the other funeral home, telling them to take their nameplates off their van and drive the body, in the middle of the night, to a parking lot. Stefan was waiting, “Making sure that [they weren’t] being tailed.” Tsarnaev was brought in through the back door of the funeral parlor. Still, somehow, word got out that Graham Putnam & Mahoney was now in possession of the corpse. As Tsarnaev’s uncle told reporters at the time, “He has no other place to be buried. There’s no other place that would accept his body.”
The documentary short is bookended by voicemail messages left by concerned citizens, in turn applauding the funeral parlor for doing their job in the face of public pressure, and suggesting that they put Tsarnaev’s body out to sea or “cremate the bastard and throw him in the trash.”
News clips show protestors gathered outside of the parlor, holding up signs and screaming insults. Stefan recalled being “spit on” and having rocks thrown at him. His team, consisting of Lonewolf Smith and Paul St. Germaine, justifiably felt as if they were in danger. Still, as Smith said, “I was just simply doing my job.” St. Germaine offered, “I wish they could understand that we have an obligation. His family came in, and asked for our help, and that’s what we did.”’
Stefan and his team were accustomed to working with people who were connected to crime and minor controversy, but nothing that compared to this. They wondered why other “traitors” were allowed burials with little to no protest, commenting on the Islamophobia that surrounded the case.
While the team had certainly dealt with extreme and exceptional cases in the past, the embalmer remembered having a unique conversation with the body that had brought violent protestors and hordes of reporters to their door. He recalled asking, “What were you thinking? What was going on in your mind to do something like this?”
Graham Putnam & Mahoney’s website opens with a quote: “Show me the manner in which a nation cares for its dead and I will measure with mathematical exactness the tender mercies of its people, their respect for the laws of the land, and their loyalty to high ideals.”
Although Stefan understood the protestors’ anger, it didn’t confuse his sense of purpose. “The fact that I’m burying him doesn’t mean that I’m condoning anything,” he insisted. “I’m just burying a dead, human body.”
“If you take an oath to bury the dead, you do it.”