The Pentagon has confirmed that early this morning, Osama bin Laden’s remains were “buried at sea.”
Westerners are overjoyed to see a mass murderer eliminated, and perhaps the denial of a earthly resting place adds to the satisfaction. Likewise, the legions of Muslims who hated bin Laden for the suffering and death he brought to Islamic lands are welcoming the news of his demise.
But how will history view the decision to deny him a grave? Is there a risk that this break from tradition could further embroil sentiment among Muslim extremists? The decency with which a nation treats its enemies — no matter how loathed — is a barometer of its civility. Will sea burial be viewed as the right choice?
Given that for nearly a decade, the U.S. government has engaged in a multi-billion dollar manhunt for bin Laden, it has had ample time to consider what to do with the terrorist chief’s body.
The Obama administration did consider religious sensitivities in its decision on what to do with the body, according to media reports. It elected sea burial for several reasons. It wanted to dispose of the remains within 24 hours, out of respect for Muslim tradition. It was concerned that a grave would create a pilgrimage destination for the terror chief’s followers. And it wanted to avoid hunting for a country willing to accept the remains.
The Koran is highly specific about the final disposition of Muslim remains. For example, believers are not to be buried in a cemetery with non-believers; they are to buried on their right side, facing in the direction of Mecca; burial should be deep enough to prevent odors that may attract predators; and so on.
As the Guardian points out, the U.S. Government has not always respected the 24 hour rule. Officials held the bodies of Saddam Hussein’s sons, Uday and Qusay, for eleven days after they were killed in a U.S. raid in 2003. The Guardian also suggests that the pilgrimage concerns may have been unfounded, noting that the Salafist Muslim tradition, to which bin Laden’s followers ascribe, reject the idea of worshipping at a grave. “Even Saudi kings are buried in unmarked graves,” the paper reports.
But religious faiths are subject to interpretation, and over time, practice often strays from scriptures. For example, most Muslims strongly disagree that the Koran justified bin Laden’s terror campaign. So even if there was a remote chance that bin Laden’s grave could become sacred ground, the administration’s decision to pre-empt such a possibility appears prudent. Clearly, whatever decision was made needed to pass the test of time, given that religion, more than any other human tradition, endures for generations. And once bin Laden had a final resting place, it would hardly be easy to change it.
Terrestrial burial is the preferred destiny of a Muslim, according to the website Al-Islam.org, a library on Islamic law, and efforts should be made to ensure such interment. However, sea burial is permitted in Islam if a person dies far enough from the coast that decay is feared, or if “it is feared that an enemy may dig up the grave and exhume the dead body and amputate its ears or nose or other limbs,” the site states. While such mutilation is hard to imagine in the modern context, perhaps it couldn’t be ruled out in bin Laden’s case.
Al-Islam adds that if sea burial is the only option, “[the body] should be lowered into the sea in a vessel of clay or with a weight tied to its feet. And as far as possible it should not be lowered at a point where it is eaten up immediately by the sea predators.”
It’s not yet clear whether these stipulations were followed. The U.S. Navy does, however, have experience with sea burial. In fact, the practice is routine enough that the website of the United States Navy Mortuary Affairs department describes how service members and their dependents can apply to be buried at sea. (There's even a Burial at Sea Request Form, although the link isn’t working.)
As dangerous as Osama bin Laden was as a free man and fugitive, his corpse was deeply problematic. Sea burial, a choice that may be discussed for ages, appears to be the least worst option.