In Sophocles’ great tragedy Antigone, a civil war has taken place in the city of Thebes between the two sons of Oedipus, Polynices and Eteocles, who are fighting for power. They are both killed, and when their uncle Creon takes throne, he decrees that Polynices is forbidden to be buried and must have his body eaten by animals outside the city walls. Antigone, the sister of Polynices and Eteocles, disobeys Creon’s order because leaving a human body unburied like that is not only a dishonor but an offense against the gods. Martha Mullen, a United Methodist from the Richmond area, is a Christian Antigone.
Mullen didn’t set out to do anything heroic, but she was really bothered when she saw on TV that Boston Marathon bomber Tamarlen Tsarnaev’s body was in limbo at the Graham Putnam & Mahoney Funeral Parlor in Worcester, Massachusetts, because every cemetery in the area was refusing to bury him. Moreover, people were actually picketing the funeral parlor as though the poor undertaker was somehow supporting terrorism by taking responsibility for putting a body in the ground and just dumping it in the middle of the road and creating a health and safety hazard.
So Mullen discreetly got in touch with some people of different faiths in the local community and the Islamic Funeral Services of Virginia agreed to inter the body. She then contacted the Worcester police department which got in touch with the funeral home. Tsarnaev’s uncle paid the cost; the body was shipped and buried in a rural plot just outside of Richmond. Nobody was supposed to find out anything about it, but the media ruthlessly pursued the story and Mullen bravely used the interviews as an opportunity to bear witness to her Christian conviction in loving her enemies. How in the world could any Christian who takes the Bible seriously oppose her actions?
In an interview with a TV station, she said, “I think we need to remember that we are all, in the end, human, and we need to remember our common humanity. As the police chief said in Worcester, we’re not barbarians, we bury the dead.” The fact that Mullen’s actions are controversial to anyone is a pretty scary indicator of where we have come as a nation. Has anyone ever protested the burial of a criminal before? Does it matter that Tsarnaev has a family who are doubly traumatized by the shame that his actions caused them and the grief of losing him? Does it matter that rotting bodies are a health hazard and the funeral home director didn’t have a thing to do with Tsarnaev’s crime?
This is another example of how God has been making the fruit so plain and obvious among His people. Mullen has been called the “most hated woman in Virginia” in the trollosphere. If you want to talk about being “persecuted for righteousness’ sake” (Matthew 5:10), Mullen is actually a legitimate example of that, unlike all the whining Christians who say that it “oppresses” them for gay people to get married. There are so few people in our world anymore who do the right thing even when it’s incredibly unpopular. I’m so glad that there are Christians like Mullen out there. Otherwise, disgusting precedents would start to get set, and the bodies of people unworthy to be eaten by worms would start to fill up the sidewalks.