DOSWELL, Va. — A day after the controversy swirling around the burial of Tamerlan Tsarnaev subsided in Worcester, it resurfaced 500 miles to the south, engulfing a rural Virginia hamlet.
As word trickled out that one of the Boston Marathon bombing suspects had been stealthily moved to Caroline County and buried, county officials Friday said they were blindsided by the news and vowed to investigate whether the burial was done to the letter of the law.
“I’m sure that if no laws were broken . . . there’s nothing we can do,” said Floyd Thomas, chairman of the board of supervisors of Caroline County. “What we would do is make sure that all of the laws regarding this particular burial were adhered to. If they were not, then I believe we would have to look at undoing what happened.”
But the Worcester funeral home director who spent nearly a week as the body’s caretaker insisted that all of the appropriate measures were taken in accordance with state laws.
“I’ve told them that I’m happy to fly down to Virginia and walk them all through it if need be,” said Peter Stefan, owner of Graham Putnam & Mahoney Funeral Parlors in Worcester.
Tsarnaev’s remains were lowered into a simple, unmarked grave Thursday morning in a private ceremony at the Al-Barzakh Cemetery, in Doswell, which sits about 15 miles from Richmond, the state capital.
His body, which had been washed and prayed over by his uncle Ruslan Tsarni last week, was buried on its side, facing toward Mecca.
“It was somewhat sad and somber,” said Bukhari Abdel-Alim, vice president of Islamic Funeral Services of Virginia, which owns the cemetery and presided over the burial. “But at the same time, it was a relief. The bigger burden on us was putting the brother in the ground, regardless of his actions.”
The cemetery — which sits tucked away off a gravel road in a green, wooded neighborhood — includes 47 marked graves, each designated with a small green sign, the person’s name, and the date of death. The dates range from June 21, 1993, to April 16, 2013. There were also at least two unmarked plots, one of which presumably contains the body of Tsarnaev.
One of the unmarked plots had a half-dozen red roses atop it that seemed as though they had been there for several days. Three dusty wheelbarrows leaned against a nearby shed.
It was a quiet scene early Friday afternoon. Birds chirped, traffic was light. Only a few local news trucks sat nearby.
But word was beginning to spread. One local man heard about the burial on the news and drove near the site. But he did not want to see the grave, saying if he did, he would spit on it.
“They should have burned him and sent him back to his mama,” said Wayne Pierce, a 61-year-old restaurant owner. “I just can’t believe this. I don’t know how they slipped him in like this.”
Tsarnaev, 26, died April 19 after a shoot-out with police in Watertown, four days after prosecutors allege that he and his brother, Dzhokhar, detonated two bombs that killed three people and injured more than 260 near the Marathon finish line.
Dzhokhar, 19, allegedly drove over his brother while fleeing the scene. He was captured about 18 hours later. He faces federal charges that could bring the death penalty. The brothers also stand accused in the death of MIT police Officer Sean Collier.
Since last Friday, when Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s remains arrived at the Worcester funeral home, Cambridge and Boston and cemeteries in Massachusetts, Connecticut, and New Jersey had refused to accept Tsarnaev’s remains.
Dozens of protesters and onlookers gathered on a small stretch of sidewalk across the street from the funeral home, enraged that the body of an alleged terrorist had been brought to Main Street.
On Tuesday, Worcester Police Chief Gary J. Gemme stared into television cameras that had stood sentinel for days outside the funeral home and pleaded for someone to come forward and provide a burial site. That same day, a woman sitting in a Virginia Starbucks had grown disgusted listening to reports about the protests in Worcester.
“It portrayed America at its worst,” said Martha Mullen, a mental health counselor who works with trauma victims. “The fact that people were picketing this poor man who was just trying to help really upset me.”
Mullen, who said she holds a degree in theology, said her Christian faith compelled her to assist in the burial. “Jesus says [to] love our enemies,” Mullen said. “So I was sitting in Starbucks and thought, ‘Maybe I’m the one person who needs to do something.’ ”
First, she conducted Internet searches to familiarize herself with Muslim burial requirements. Then, she began looking for cemeteries near her hometown, Richmond.
Soon, she located the Islamic Funeral Services of Virginia, a nonprofit that owns Al-Barzakh Cemetery, the first of its kind in the state.
Within an hour of sending an e-mail, Mullen got a response from Islamic Funeral Services: They could provide a burial plot for Tsarnaev.
“We pretty much started talking, saying, ‘OK, how can we do this?’ ” Abdel-Alim said. “If we’re the only option, how can we do it?’ ”
Then Mullen reached out to the Worcester police, who had been standing guard at Stefan’s funeral home and who promised to put the funeral home in contact with the Virginia nonprofit. But Stefan was no longer calling the shots.
Families possess the ultimate authority in burials of relatives and are not required to use a funeral director to facilitate a burial.
Frustrated with what had been a lengthy and unsuccessful search for a burial plot, the uncle, Tsarni, told Stefan on Wednesday that he was taking control of the burial and that, by the end of the day, the body would be en route to a cemetery.
Worcester police put Tsarni in contact with Islamic Funeral Services, which spent hours Wednesday on the phone with the uncle working out details.
Once the deal was struck, Stefan said he dispatched two funeral employees, driving the home’s black hearse, to Boston to file the completed death certificate and to retrieve a burial permit.
The final detail etched onto the death certificate: “Place of Disposition: Al-Barzakh Muslim Cemetery Doswell, VA.”
Tsarni then worked with police and funeral home officials to chart his route through six states.
At 8:46 p.m. Wednesday, a single funeral home van pulled out of the heavily guarded driveway, in front of the watchful eyes of the dozen or so members of the media still camped out in front, according to funeral home employees.
The van drove, without an official police escort, to an agreed upon location off the Massachusetts Turnpike, where the body was transferred to Tsarni, who shepherded the body in a rented van to Virginia.
Moments after Tsarnaev’s remains were placed in the grave, Tsarni informed Worcester police officials, who announced outside the funeral home that Tsarnaev’s body was no longer in the city and had been buried.
Worcester spent much of Thursday returning to life as normal. The harsh signs and American flags, remnants of the protesters, came down.
But 24 hours later, when Tsarnaev’s death certificate became public, the wave of emotion and outrage that had festered for a week in Worcester had followed the body south.
“He’s a Muslim; we don’t need that here,” Margaret Stevens, a 68-year-old retiree, said as she bought items at the Frog Level Market near Doswell. “All that stuff started in Boston. It’s just not right. They shouldn’t have brought him. It didn’t happen here.”
“I don’t care what they do with [the body] as long as they don’t bury him here,” she added.
Some residents who live near the cemetery approached Islamic Funeral Services officials to voice their complaints.
“People in Boston had their right to protest; we didn’t get a right to say yea or nay,” Gwen Green, a 53-year-old who works at Caroline High School, told Abdel-Alim. “I just think it was a slap in the face to Caroline County.”
County and state officials in Virginia could not confirm that Tsarnaev’s body had been buried in the state. Worcester police and the cemetery, they complained, had kept them in the dark. County officials asked the Virginia attorney general to investigate the legality of the burial, but a spokesman for the attorney general’s office said Friday night that the office had no jurisdiction over the burial.
“It caught all of us off guard,” Caroline County Sheriff Tony Lippa Jr said. “None of us know anything about this.”
Warning that defacing a grave is a felony, Lippa vowed to provide security for Tsarnaev’s burial site.
“Are we taking security measures?” Lippa said. “I can assure you we are.”
It is unclear if the gravesite will eventually be marked. Mullen said in an interview Friday evening that Tsarnaev’s uncle paid for the $850 burial plot. Abdel-Alim said his organization harbors no regrets about providing Tsarnaev a final resting place.
“The only regret that I would have is that he wasn’t buried sooner,” he said. “Whether he was Christian, Muslim, Jewish, atheist, when you’re dead, you need to be buried.”
Stefan, the Worcester funeral home owner, said if he were presented with a similar situation in the future, his actions would be the same.
“I don’t leave things undone,” Stefan said early Friday evening. “I did what I did. I followed it through to conclusion, and I’d do it again tomorrow if someone calls me. For Christ’s sake, character has to be consistent.”Brian MacQuarrie of the Globe staff and Globe correspondent Lauren Dezenski contributed to this report. Wesley Lowery can be reached at wesley.
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