Funeral Director Writes Book About Burial of Boston Bombing Suspect Tamerlan Tsarnaev
Peter Stefan was tasked with preparing the body of one of the suspected terrorists, and then finding a proper burial plot. And he’d do it all again.
In the year after the Boston Marathon bombings, survivors, reporters, and bystanders all penned first-person narratives recounting the moment-by-moment details between the days the blasts occurred at the finish line, and when the alleged suspects were finally apprehended.
Now, Peter Stefan, owner of Graham, Putnam, and Mahoney Funeral Home, has his own story to tell.
The Worcester funeral director, who took on the controversial and highly-criticized task of preparing the body of Boston bombing suspect Tamerlan Tsarnaev, after dozens of other businesses refused to do so, later had to try to locate a burial plot that would accept his remains. In a new book set for release, tentatively titled, The Last Rights of the Boston Marathon Bomber,Stefan delves into the behind-the-scenes details of the entire experience.
After Tsarnaev was killed during a shootout with police in Watertown, four days after the Boylston Street attack, his remains were sent to the state’s medical examiner’s office before they were shipped to a funeral home in North Attleborough. Less than a day later, protesters showed up outside the building waving flags, and cursing at the owners for accepting the body. That’s when Stefan stepped in and brought the remains to Worcester instead.
Finding a place that would bury Tsarnaev after his body was prepared proved daunting, to say the least, as dozens of cities turned their backs to Stefan’s requests for help. During the week he had the body, public outrage ballooned as protesters lined the streets outside of his Worcester business, making Stefan’s duties that much more difficult.
But despite all of the negative attention, threats, and pushback from communities both locally and nationally, Stefan held his ground. In his memoir (a portion of the proceeds will go to charity), Stefan hopes that readers will get a better understanding about what transpired, and possibly see that his that actions were nothing more than simply following through with what he’s always done, no matter the circumstances: his job.
What’s the book going to be about?
The book is written to show what I did, what I felt from day one, what transpired when I got the call, the protesters, and different things that I felt in this profession of what I do. Again, the criticism was just tremendous. And it came from areas where there should have been support, not criticism.
When did that criticism start to fade away?
It still hasn’t faded away. It’s come back a little now, because of the book. I’m getting all sorts of calls and comments and God knows what else will be coming. They call up and say that I’m a charlatan and a profiteer, and call you all sorts of names, but I say, ‘Look, it’s about what I did. You know what happened, that’s not going to go away. All I’m doing is telling my side of what I felt like.’ I didn’t get a lot of backing, not even from my funeral service people. You didn’t see that, either. And I was only doing what I do, and I think it would have been nice if someone came out and said this is what we do as funeral directors. Period. I didn’t see that, either.
Not at all?
No. The funeral service [industry] basically said nothing, if you look back and try and get some quotes. The national association said something like, ‘if he had called and asked, we would have helped him.’ Well, I’m a member of the local association. Why should you have to call and ask? Read the newspaper, it’s there.
With all the criticism, would you do anything different?
No. Absolutely not. This is what you do. I get calls here, I bury various groups of people—it’s not really an ethnic business. It’s a non-sectarian business. I’m bound to get anything: from vampires to Satan worshippers, you name it. They come in. The thing is, the job here is we bury the dead. I can’t separate the sins from the sinners, and if you called me and said, ‘My Uncle Freddy died, but he was a murderer,’ and I said, ‘Well, I don’t bury murderers.’ And again, ‘Uncle Freddy was a bank robber,’ and I said, ‘Well, I don’t bury bank robbers.’ Or, ‘Uncle Freddy was an alcoholic. He was drunk driving when he was killed.’ ‘Well, I don’t bury alcoholics.’ Well, then who the hell do you bury? You know?
Do you find it hard to keep that stance?
No. I take the poor people and everything, and everyone knows that. I’m not predicated by money. If I were predicated by money, then I wouldn’t be here…that’s been it. Will the book be well received? Who knows. I’m just telling my story.
Can you tell me more about how everything transpired?
We had been contacted, as everyone knows. [Tamerlan’s] uncle had contacted us, and we had made arrangements for it. The uncle had called us because I handle most of the Muslim community. I know the customers. What I had done is I made arrangements. I didn’t do anything right away, because I was trying to see if things would calm down soon, assuming they might. Then the Attleboro funeral home got involved, and when they got involved in and it and saw what it was, we made arrangements to pick him up. And of course, the news media knew about it. But I learned one thing: when you lie about something, when you talk to them again, you have to compound the lie to remember what you said before. So I just said, ‘yes, we have him.’ Once [the media] learned we had him, that’s when everything broke loose. That was it.
What about the process from getting him from the funeral home, to where he was buried? Was that a difficult process?
Yes. And that’s one I can’t divulge. It’s one of the things that’s in the book that I have to keep off to the side. But yes, it’s in there. Coming from Boston, [the bombings] bothered me. But when it happened, I sort of had a feeling that someone would be calling me, because I do handle a lot of difficult cases—and this was certainly one of them.
What are you hoping people take away from this book?
Exactly what I did in this business, as a person. And hopefully it will teach them that somewhere along the way, you have to stand up and be counted. And also, in this country, we bury the dead. If you want us to drag them through the streets, and put them in dumpsters, then pass a law and we will be glad to do that. But that isn’t the way it is here. And I think we represented the country pretty well. We didn’t do anything the country should be ashamed of.
You said you wished you had more help in this.
If I had had more time, I probably could have gotten him to Russia. You will hear a lot of comments that the Governor didn’t help me, or the Mayor didn’t bother—they couldn’t do anything for us. They never turned their back on us. They never did. The Governor and the Mayor conversed with us, and there was nothing they could do for us. So I am trying to get that in there because so many people have said, and it’s not true.
What other myths are dispelled in the book?
Everything was shown in the media. The only other thing that’s in there is my thoughts, and what happened when I saw the capture of these people, and what went on there. When I got the call and so forth, and had to go around looking around for some help. The biggest thing you will read is how much effort we put into trying to find some place to bury him, and refusal, after refusal, after refusal. It just builds basically, what I normally do here, and expands into, ‘which way do you turn now?’ What do you do? I would walk out into the back parking lot and say, ‘you’re all by yourself on this. If you’re looking for any help, you better look in the mirror.’
Did this hurt business for you?
In actuality, business has increased about 30 percent.
Why do you think that is, if people were so angry about what happened?
I think it was a turn-around of people who finally said to themselves, ‘this had to be done.’ If we hadn’t done something, after three or four days, people would have said, ‘this is what these people do, why don’t they do something?’ If you wanted to do something, higher authorities should have taken his body and said, ‘we’re taking his body and we will bury him somewhere secretly. See you later.’ But that didn’t happen, either. That’s about the sum total of it.
What would you say to the victims or people that would say you’re trying to turn a profit from this side of the story?
The fact is, it’s no different from the hospital personnel that save the lives of some of these people that are murderers. It’s the same thing. If you’re some place and there’s a shooting, and the criminal or perpetrator is there too, do you treat everybody else? They treat everybody. Where the hell do you draw the line?
Photo Credit: PETER STEFAN’S FUNERAL HOME IN WORCESTER / PHOTO VIA ASSOCIATED PRESS