Burial Death + Crime Death + Popular Culture Death + the Law Death Ethics

On the Death of Osama Bin Laden

Watery Grave, Murky Law
Leor Halevi, New York Times (May 08, 2011)
Osama bin Laden’s burial at sea and the history of Shariah.


Bin Laden Exits the Scene
On the Media, WNYC and National Public Radio (May 06, 2011)

It has been one week since President Obama announced that Osama Bin Laden was dead. I happened to be in New York City when the announcement was made so I immediately began taking stock of the entire situation. Within the annals of infamous dead bodies (Eva Peron, Hitler, Che Guevara, Mao, Lenin, etc.) Bin Laden’s corpse is an important specter for twenty-first century human history. I began collecting news articles on what exactly happened to Bin Laden’s dead body since I knew that controversy was sure to follow.

My first inkling that something was askew came on Monday morning when National Public Radio reported that Bin Laden received a sea burial with full Muslim funeral rites. I’m not a Muslim burial rites specialist but at no time have I ever read about a Muslim burial at sea. The Death Reference Desk has certainly covered contemporary (mostly American) Muslim burial practices and you can read that information here. But even the most contemporary, American Muslim traditions still hew to much older Islamic funeral traditions.



Over the course of last week much back and forth ensued over what exactly happened to Bin Laden’s dead body and how, if at all, it conformed to Islamic funeral practices.’s Explainer column posted one of the first good pieces on the entire concept: Bin Laden Sleeps With the Fishes. Central to what occurred was a choice by US Government Officials (I can only assume that this starts with President Obama) that burying Bin Laden anywhere would be problematic. This is a point that many people discussed so I won’t belabor it.

There is one place, however, that I imagine could be used for a “proper” burial and that is Guantanamo Bay. But even mentioning that scenario would create global havoc. That said, I bet money that Gitmo got mentioned by someone and then quickly passed over.

As a result, Osama Bin Laden’s dead body got put in the ocean because the United States wanted to get rid of it. I don’t think that the narrative is much more complicated than that. The use of Muslim funeral rites are nice but what happened to Bin Laden’s body was not a particularly Muslim burial.

Here’s the rub: that might not be a problem. In Sunday’s New York Times, Vanderbilt University history professor Leor Halevi wrote an a particularly good op/ed piece on this very topic, linked at the top of the page. Halevi’s article is the best that I have come across to date. Here’s the crux:

Bin Laden’s religious status is a matter of contention among Muslims. On one end of the spectrum are Muslims who consider him an outsider to Islam: if not quite an apostate, a terrorist whose right to an official Muslim prayer is debatable at best. (In 2005 the Islamic Commission of Spain essentially excommunicated Bin Laden, arguing that he should not be treated as a Muslim.) They must find it as perplexing as I do that the United States government granted the man it identified not as a Muslim, but as a “mass murderer of Muslims,” the dubious honor of a quasi-Islamic funeral.


On the other end are Muslims who believe that Bin Laden is now enjoying the blessings of martyrdom. From a theological perspective, it matters little to them how Americans on the aircraft carrier Carl Vinson disposed of the corpse.


Which is all to say that Bin Laden’s burial was doctrinally irrelevant to some Muslims, and confusing to others. Most of the rest feel uneasy. Perhaps the United States could not have avoided that. But a deeper understanding of the history of Islam’s sacred law could have prevented us from seeming so at sea.

Here is what I know for sure: by the middle of this coming week everyone in America will be talking about something else and that over time conversations will come and go, mostly amongst academics, on whether or not Osama Bin Laden got a proper funeral.

The more immediate political question focuses on whether or not the photo(s) of Bin Laden’s dead body should be released. This question, too, will go away by the middle of the week. The photos were not released now but they will surface in the future. How soon is an open question but we will eventually see the images.

The On The Media program at the top has several good radio segments on Bin Laden, his dead body, and the future of his memory.

I have a hunch that Meg, Kim, and I will be discussing Osama Bin Laden’s dead body again in the near future since America has a long history of dealing with the infamous dead and in ways that keep those infamous dead bodies very much alive.

Afterlife Burial

Jewish Burial Gets Back to the Roots

Reviving a Ritual of Tending to the Dead
Paul Vitello, The New York Times (December 13, 2010)
A new generation of Jewish volunteers is learning how to prepare a body for burial using techniques that attend to “the feelings of the dead.”

It has been a good year for people who want to re-discover the roots of Jewish funereal practices. Last March I posted a story about a documentary film which documented a group of Jewish women preparing a dead body.

What is really interesting to me is how Jewish (and Muslim) customs are being studied by non-Jews and non-Muslims for their own dead. Indeed, a good number of Natural Burial and Home Funeral proponents borrow ideas from both Islam and Judaism.

This New York Times is a variation on that theme, where non-Orthodox Jews living in Brooklyn want to learn what is done when a person dies. I also find this situation more and more, where a certain religious group suddenly realizes that most of its members do not know what to do when a member of the faith dies. I’ve spoken with funeral directors who have been asked point blank what a certain religious faith requires– from members of that faith.

Everything eventually gets sorted out but it still makes for awkward conversations.

I wouldn’t mind knowing, either, what these funeral practices look like in 1000 years.

That to me is the most important point to contemplate: what stays and what goes.

What does it all morph into since dead bodies will most certainly still be around.

Death + Biology Death + Crime

Murder?! The Maggots Are on It

Crime Scene Insects
BBC World Service (June 11, 2010)

This episode of BBC Documentaries explores forensic entomology: “the investigation of insects recovered from crime scenes and corpses.” Guests include Amoret Whitaker of the Natural History Museum in London, who studies the flies and maggots that congregate on corpses to find clues about the time and nature of death. She also analyzes the decomposition of pigs, a “good model for humans.”

They also speak with Bill Bass, anthropologist at the Body Farm, a facility at the University of Tennessee for researching the decomposition of bodies. According to Professor Bass, “I went to the Dean in November of ’71 and I said, ‘Dean, I need some land to put dead bodies on.’ ” And land he did receive. (John posted last fall about the Body Farm needing to refuse unclaimed bodies because of the growing surplus resulting from the poor economy… yikes!)

Have a listen — 22.5 minutes of homicide-solving maggots is bound to brighten any day.

Afterlife cremation Grief + Mourning

Fire, Beauty and Death in Bali

What does a cremation sound like? Most of us in the Western world would be hard-pressed to answer that question. Cremation is something that takes place out of sight, and for most, out of mind. The fiery furnaces are lit, the body is rolled in and a few hours later, ashes to ashes, dust to dust. It is sterile, it is discreet and it is solitary.

But if you could hear it, what would it sound like? If you could see it, what would it look like? And, indeed, what would it smell like? Seattle visual and sound artist Jesse Paul Miller and his wife Linda Peschong, a photographer, visited southeast Asia in the early part of 2008. Planning to stay only until June, they were able to extend their stay in Bali an extra month. July in Bali is cremation season. And to their delight, the largest of such public ceremonies involving cremation of royal family members was about to begin.

Through field recordings taken by Jesse, you can experience the aural intensity of the cremation ceremony itself. The rich, sonic landscape features crowd noises, gamelans, drums and chanting as the procession takes place. Have a listen!

Burial Funeral Industry

Washing the Dead for Jewish Funerals

Jewish Burial Practices
Religion and Ethics Newsweekly, PBS (February 6th, 2004)

Last week on the Death Reference Desk I wrote about American Muslims washing the dead body before a funeral. A friend from graduate school, Jakki, saw the post and sent me a fantastic PBS segment on the Jewish tradition of washing the dead. Jakki summed up postmortem body washing for both Islam and Judaism this way: “Jews do the same (another example of our common heritage).” And she is absolutely correct. Indeed, of the three Abrahamic religions (Islam, Judaism, and Christianity) it is the Christian Church which has moved the furthest away from washing the dead body. There are many, many historical reasons for the move away from body washing and I have a hunch that the practice might return.

Until that time, however, the contemporary practice of corpse washing falls mostly to Muslims and Jews. Check out the video linked above, and as with last week’s Muslim body washing post, note the combination of both traditional prayer and public health required protective gear.

Happy Passover to one and all.

Burial Funeral Industry

Washing the Dead for Muslim Funerals

The Washing: In the Muslim Custom of Bathing the Dead, She Found a Deep Sense of Reward — and Shaved off 40 Sins
Reshma Memon Yaqub, The Washington Post (March 21, 2010)

Modern human migration has created a real dilemma for the first, second, and third generations of immigrant children. When a relative dies, many of these young people will be called upon to handle the funeral ceremonies for the deceased. Yet, the individuals involved (most of whom will be adults by that time) don’t have a good idea about what they are supposed to do. What is the current funeral ritual? I have encountered this situation in both America and the United Kingdom. Indeed, funeral directors in both countries explain that children of immigrants often ask the funeral directors (who are thoroughly local) what to do at the funeral. As always, a good funeral director will know the answer.

Over the weekend, The Washington Post ran a first person essay by a Muslim-American woman who was called upon to wash the body of her deceased relative. The article really quite moving. I have to say that this particular essay is one of the most interesting pieces on modern American funerals that I have read in a long time. I was particularly struck by how the author captured the mixing of traditional Muslim postmortem preparations with public health requirements, i.e., the wearing of latex gloves and face shields while washing the deceased.

I was also impressed by Reshma Memon Yaqub’s full on admission that she wasn’t entirely sure what to do but knew that she was supposed to do it.

While I was working on this post, I came across a May 2009 article from The Oregonian, entitled Islam’s ritual of washing the body bestows respect on the dead, and it lists a lot of useful information which anyone interested in global funeral rituals will enjoy reading.

More than anything, these articles point to the following truism: human migration brings cultural changes for both life and death. This is a good thing.

The world would be a much sadder place if all the funerals were the same.

Death + Popular Culture

Santa Muerte…Saint Death Accepts Everyone

Devotion to Saint Death
William Booth, The Washington Post (December 6, 2009)

I don’t really know a lot about Santa Muerte or Saint Death. After I read this article, I remembered seeing the various Santa Muerte statues in Mexican stores but never really thought twice about it.

Santa Muerte

This Washington Post piece (linked above) brings a whole new angle to worshiping (some use the word “cult”) Saint Death. The article also includes an amazing photo montage of the monthly Saint Death festivities in Mexico City.

And, as always, YouTube has something to contribute…

Death + the Law Grief + Mourning Monuments + Memorials

Roadside Memorials Face Roadblocks

Should Roadside Memorials Be Banned?
New York Times (July 12, 2009)

As part of their “Room for Debate” series, the New York Times provides five varying perspectives (along with well over a hundred reader comments so far) on the issue of roadside and neighborhood memorials. These shrines of grief—including crosses, photos, flowers, stuffed animals and other mementos—spring up seemingly spontaneously at the sites of accidental death and murder.

With most of them displayed on public property along highways and city sidewalks, however, opinions vary on their appropriateness and legality. Are such memorials safety hazards for decelerating, distracted motorists and, for the ones including religious symbols, violations of church and state? Or are they “outlaw” expressions of the people that will not and cannot (and perhaps should not) be suppressed?

One contributor is Melissa Villanueva, director and producer of Resting Places, a documentary about roadside memorials that explores the controversy in depth. The film is presently seeking distribution—here’s a trailer.


Prone Burials: Mortifying the Dead

Buried Face Down: Prone Burials
Current Archaeology, v.20(231), June 2009
Via National Geographic News

Face-down burial has long been regarded with a knee-jerk, not-right, benefiting-the-doubt reaction. Across cultures and through time, experts and laity alike have assumed prone burials to be accidents or the result of post-interment disturbances.

Following an extensive survey of documented prone burials around the world, however, anthropologist Caroline Arcini of Sweden’s National Heritage Board has concluded that face-down burial was done intentionally to shame the dead: prisoners of war, criminals and those of lower social status, accused as witches or harboring the wrong religion in the wrong place and time.