12/05/2013 19:15 BST | Updated 12/07/2013 06:12 BST

Ritual, Gesture and the Boston Bomber's Burial

Getty Images

If you hadn't noticed, there was a pretty hefty controversy over the burial of Boston Marathon bombing suspect Tamerlan Tsarnaev. Boston mayor Thomas Menino said he would not allow Tsarnaev's body to be buried in the city. But "burying the dead is a work of mercy" contended Sister Rena Mae Gagnon, a 77-year-old nun who eloquently represented the other side of the argument. Sister Rena Mae protested outside the funeral home where Tsarnaev's body languished for nearly three weeks after he was killed in a gun battle with police.

An anonymous source finally stepped forward and offered an unmarked grave in Virginia so that Tsarnaev's body - and the debate - could be put to rest. But the entire episode is a powerful reminder of the importance of ritual and gestures, even in an era where we'd like to think that cold facts, data, and rationality always carry the day.

Burials are a particularly sensitive matter. Consider the case of what to do with Richard III's body, discovered last year beneath a car park in Leicester. Or the controversy over how Osama bin Laden was buried at sea by the US military in May 2011. Radical clerics were outraged by what they suspected to be American mistreatment of a Muslim. Some US commentators were incensed, too. In fact, the disposal of Bin Laden's remains was handled in strict accordance with Islamic precepts and practices - the deceased's body having been washed, placed in a white sheet, with religious remarks read and translated into Arabic by a native speaker. Dignity and respect for the most dastardly terrorist of our time, came the outcry from some quarters.

In 1985 a bitter confrontation erupted between the US and West Germany when Chancellor Helmut Kohl sought to host President Ronald Reagan for a visit to a military cemetery in Bitburg. The occasion was intended as a moment of historic reconciliation between the two nations. However, the cemetery turned out to contain the graves of 49 members of the Waffen-SS. And the strained point, made by proponents of the visit on both sides of the Atlantic, that the Waffen-SS - a combat force - was not the same as the notorious SS, the elite guard of the Nazis responsible for the worst crimes against humanity, only made things worse.

There's a larger point here that goes well beyond burials. Rituals are important. Gestures, even seemingly small ones, can be extremely powerful. They strike chords deep within us.

In late 2005 Tony Blair was pilloried by critics for not returning home promptly from a working holiday in Egypt to oversee tsunami relief operations from 10 Downing Street - even though Britain had begun to lead the aid effort from the moment the disaster occurred. As a practical matter, what's more, there was really nothing Blair could do from London at that particular moment that he wasn't already doing from abroad.

The conclusion is obvious, though: Blair should have jumped on the first plane home (or directly to the affected region).

I had the CEO of a major multinational corporation explain to me how, at a time of difficulty and downsizing for his company, he stopped using the corporate jet for business trips - even though his flying commercial actually offered no economic benefit to the company and its employees. In contrast, remember the US auto industry execs who flew to Washington in late 2008 aboard private jets to ask Congress for a taxpayer bail out?

The conclusion here seems equally obvious: MBA programmes should require classes in decency and common sense.

Incidentally, the word 'gesture' comes from medieval Latin meaning 'bearing, behaviour' and has come to signify 'action undertaken in good will to express feeling'.

Which reminds of Iain Duncan Smith's quip, in the midst of the UK's contentious austerity and welfare reform debate, that he could live off £53 a week. Just for sake of argument, maybe the government minister could. But who cares? The point is whether others can, and whether in this instance the budget cutter has empathy for those who are most vulnerable and affected by the cuts.

Who was right in the Boston burial debate?

I think the mayor and the nun both had a point. I think both were sincere and authentic, qualities crucial to any effective gesture. I think local police chief Gary Gemme had a point, too. It was Gemme who in the end urged someone to step forward with a cemetery plot, saying: "We are not barbarians. We bury the dead."