Faith and doctrine made flesh

9 11 Cross copySeveral years ago, I wrote a Scripps Howard News Service column about one of the more obscure disputes linked to the death, or death by starvation, of Terri Schiavo -- whether or not her body should be cremated, against strong opposition of her devout Roman Catholic family. I knew, of course, some of the territory here, in terms of how many religious groups -- including Eastern Orthodox Christianity, my own church -- view the care of the body after death. I had written, in the past, about the Mennonites and my studies of Jewish and Catholic culture exposed me to a number of different points of view on these issues.

So, trust me, I have a lot of sympathy for the task faced by reporter Benedicta Cipolla, writing the Religion News Service story that went out onto the wires with this headline: "9/11 families sue for right to religious burials." Here's the top of the story:

NEW YORK -- After the memorial Mass on Oct. 26, 2001, for her son Christian, a probationary firefighter who died in the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center, Sally Regenhard didn't proceed to a cemetery.

There was no cemetery because there was no body. Christian's remains were never found.

Now, more than six years later, Regenhard is part of a civil lawsuit against New York City by the group World Trade Center Families for Proper Burial, which was founded in 2003 to retrieve the remains of family members in hopes of providing a proper burial.

The suit, filed by veteran civil rights attorney Norman Siegel, turns in part on a novel legal claim: that the families' inability to bury their loved ones according to the tenets of their faith violates their First Amendment right of free religious exercise. The families want a portion of the 1 million tons of World Trade Center debris that was sent to Fresh Kills landfill on Staten Island to be resifted and -- even if no human remains are identified -- transferred to a location that can serve as a mass grave.

Now, for this story to work you need to know that there is more to it than people wanting to properly bury the remains of their loved ones. You need to know that they need to, for specific reasons of religious law or tradition.

You need that information in the story. But how are you supposed to do that, when the tragedy involved so many people from such radically different faith traditions? And, of course, an Orthodox Jewish tradition may or may not affect the beliefs of Jews in Conservative or Reform congregations. Beliefs are now -- as I hinted at earlier -- split among Catholics.

As Cipolla's story mentions:

No remains have been found for about 1,100 of the 2,749 people killed at the Twin Towers. The group says it represents 1,000 families whose relatives died in the attacks, though the suit names only 17 individual plaintiffs. ...

A federal judge has already expressed skepticism about the claims, but regardless of the outcome of the suit, the claims highlight the spiritual significance of burial across religions. The 17 named plaintiffs include Christian, Jewish and Hindu families.

The story includes some vague references to religious obligations, but does not quote or explain any of the religious laws or traditions involved. Again, I know how complicated all of this is. I know there is no way that one news story could contain specifics about all of the faiths. But, well, how about one set of specifics, as an example of the complexity that will surface in this legal battle? Perhaps Jewish traditions, for example.

Lawsuits are picky and turn on strong fact claims. We needed one more layer of fact in this otherwise very fine, heart-grabbing report.

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