Osama Bin Laden's burial at sea: Why did we throw his body in the ocean?

Answers to your questions about the news.
May 2 2011 12:26 PM

Bin Laden Sleeps With the Fishes

Do we always bury enemies of state at sea?

Osama bin Laden. Click image to expand.

The body of terrorist leader Osama Bin Laden was buried at sea, according to U.S. officials, so that his grave wouldn't become a shrine. Do we normally bury enemies of state in Davy Jones' locker?

Sometimes. The sea burial of Bin Laden's body—probably in a heavy metal casket with holes drilled in the top and bottom—is a twist on a longstanding practice. Governments hate to see a nemesis' burial place become a focal point for resistance. After the Nuremburg trials, the Allied authorities cremated the remains of Hermann Göring—who committed suicide prior to his scheduled hanging—and his nine executed compatriots. Their ashes were spread in the Conwentzbach River, a minor tributary that flows into the Isar, so that their graves wouldn't become a place of worship for Nazi sympathizers. While the U.S. government might have preferred to cremate Bin Laden's remains prior to disposal, Muslim tradition forbids cremation because it's inconsistent with the resurrection of the body. (The Vatican placed the same prohibition on Catholics between 1886 and 1963.) U.S. officials have told reporters that Bin Laden's body was handled in accordance with Islamic principles, although some Muslim scholars have already argued that the terrorist leader should have been buried in the ground with his head pointing toward Mecca.

Osama Bin Laden should consider himself lucky compared to Adolf Hitler, whose death was made public 66 years to the day before Bin Laden's. (Hitler actually committed suicide the day before the announcement.) After the Führer shot himself, his subordinates cremated his remains—although not effectively—and buried them in the garden of the Reich Chancellery. Days later, Soviet soldiers disinterred the body and moved it to a different gravesite outside of Berlin proper. Over the next quarter-century, Hitler's remains were dug up and reburied several times. In 1970, KGB chief * Yuri Andropov  ordered an officer named Vladimir Gumenyuk to pick a secret final resting place for Hitler, so that his grave wouldn't become a shrine to neo-Nazis. To this day, Gumenyuk refuses to reveal its location.

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Not all U.S. enemies wind up in a watery grave after assassination or execution. Saddam Hussein was treated to traditional Islamic burial rites and interred in a compound he had built for himself near his birthplace. It's not clear, however, whether the Bush administration or the Iraqi government chose Hussein's final resting place. When detainees die at Guantanamo Bay, either through suicide or natural causes, the Pentagon repatriates the remains to their home countries, where the funerals often become scenes of anti-American protest.

Although there's no evidence that the Pentagon did anything with Bin Laden other than conducting a DNA match, governments have, on occasion, succumbed to the temptation to do a little experimenting on their enemies' remains. The Soviets took Hitler's jaws and teeth from his grave and stored them in a warehouse. They also examined part of his skull in a failed attempt to discern where the bullet penetrated it.

The U.S. government did an extensive autopsy on the remains of Robert Ley, a Nazi official who, like Goring, committed suicide in Nuremberg. The initial study found serious damage to Ley's frontal lobe, setting off a wave of speculation that the Nazis' penchant for extreme violence could be the result of brain damage. Later analyses, however, found the early claims overblown, tamping down speculation that evil could have an identifiable organic basis.

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Correction, May 3, 2011: The article originally identified Andropov as Soviet premier in 1970. In fact, he did not become general secretary of the Communist Party until 1982. (Return to the corrected sentence.)

Brian Palmer writes about science, medicine, and the environment for Slate and Earthwire. Email him at explainerbrian@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter.

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