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Funeral director in Boston bombing case used to serving the unwanted

Worcester funeral home director Peter Stefan addressed his concerns about the refusal of cemeteries in the area to bury Boston bombing suspect Tamerlan Tsarnaev, telling reporters "I understand everybody's feelings but at some point we have to set feelings aside and say, we have to do something."

He’s the undertaker for the unwanted.

Peter Stefan, the Massachusetts funeral director stuck with the body of a Boston Marathon bombing suspect, has been tending to the forgotten, the forsaken and the flat-broke for years.

“He’s bent over backwards to serve the least in the community for decades,” said Josh Slocum, executive director of the Funeral Consumers Alliance.

"He's probably one of the few people with the guts to do the right thing," said Lisa Carlson of the Funeral Ethics Organization.

Stefan’s charity and courage has certainly been tested since he accepted the body of Tamerlan Tsranaev, accused in the April 15 bombings that killed three and wounded more than 200 at the marathon finish line.

No cemetery has agreed to take the remains from Stefan, whose Worcester funeral home has been the target of protests.

At a Monday press conference outside Graham Putnam & Mahoney Funeral Parlors, the 76-year-old expressed embarrassment and exasperation over a situation that has little precedent.

He said he was still hoping to convince the city of Cambridge, where Tsarnaev lived, that it should bury him – or get the State Department to arrange a flight to Russia, where the dead man’s parents could claim him.

"I'm gonna get on the phone now and call the necessary people and say, 'You know what, we need help with this,’” Stefan said.

Cambridge Police Dept. file

Tamerlan Tsarnaev is seen in a booking photo from a 2009 arrest in Cambridge, Mass.

The early response to the impasse was not promising.

Cambridge was sticking by a statement in which it practically pleaded with Stefan not to apply for a plot in the city graveyard, saying it would create too much turmoil.

The State Department said it wouldn’t get involved and suggested the Russian consulate should take the lead. Gov. Deval Patrick called it a “family issue.”

Stefan said he was sensitive to the strong emotions but also seemed bewildered that no one would take the body of the ethnic Chechen – which must be buried in accordance with Muslim tradition.

"In this country, we bury people. We don't leave them hanging around,” he said.

Those who know Stefan were not surprised by his stand.

"He was the only one who would bury gay men dead of AIDS back in the 80s. He did funerals for slain prostitutes that everyone else treated like some sort of subhuman trash,” Slocum said in an email, calling him “a good man of rare character.”

A 2002 profile in the Worcester Telegram and Gazette highlighted Stefan’s soft heart and the free funerals he had given to the downtrodden – from new immigrants to homeless veterans.

“God must have loved the poor, ‘cause he made so many of them. That’s one of my favorite sayings,’” he told the paper. “Nobody seems to give a crap. That’s why I’m involved, to take care of poor people.”

Two years later, Stefan organized a memorial for three prostitutes killed by a suspected serial killer because he was upset that no one else seemed to care about their lives or deaths. He also launched a fund for the victims’ children, the Boston Globe reported at the time.

The head of the National Funeral Directors Association had nothing but praise for Stefan, saying the trade’s ethical code requires members to serve families "in a professional manner" even in difficult situations.

“I can commend him for what he’s doing,” said Bob Rosson, stressing that his heart goes out to the bombing victims.

"I would hope my colleagues in the cemetery business would look at this way the funeral directors do,” he added.

In the meantime, there’s no road map for Stefan.

Some of the most reviled figures in recent times — from Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh to cannibal serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer — were cremated, forbidden in Islam.

Osama bin Laden was buried at sea, but some Muslim clerics and scholars have said that's only permitted when someone dies aboard a ship.

Tsarnaev's uncle, Ruslan Tsarni, who traveled to Massachusetts to deal with the arrangements, said his nephew should be laid to rest in Massachusetts, where he had lived legally for more than a decade.

His parents, who have insisted Tamerlan and his younger brother Dzhokhar were framed, prefer he be buried in Russia, where they live, Stefan said.

Slocum said one thing is clear to him: Stefan should “not have to bear the stress and cost of this.”

“It is completely unfair to leave the little guys holding the responsibility,” he said. “So I say to state and federal agencies – step up right now and do the right thing.”

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Heightened security, empty streets, and memorials mark the the days after the Boston Marathon bombings.