What Does Let the Dead Bury the Dead Mean?

Have you ever heard or read the expression let the dead bury the dead and wondered what it meant? Although it sounds quite morbid, this biblical saying actually has a less gruesome meaning than you might imagine. Read on to learn more.

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What Does Let the Dead Bury the Dead Mean?

The phrase let the dead bury the dead has at least two commonly accepted definitions. So, when you hear someone use the expression or see it written, it’s important to pay attention to the context in which it is being used in order to understand the intended meaning. 

Firstly, the saying can be used to express the notion that God, or one’s religious or spiritual responsibilities, should come first and be placed before all else. Indeed, this is how many biblical scholars interpret the Bible verse—really verses—from which this expression originated (find out much more below). 

Secondly, it can be used to convey the idea that the past is in the past and what’s done is done; that we shouldn’t dredge up or dwell on old problems or conflicts that are, well, metaphorically long since dead and buried. To some, this definition is seen as a misinterpretation of the Bible quotes, while others believe this is in fact the intended meaning of the Bible verses.

Again, it is important to look to the context in which the expression is used to determine which definition the speaker or author intends. 

For example:

I don’t know why you’re still mad at your sister, Jimmy, over a fight that happened years and years ago. Don’t you think it’s time to let the dead bury the dead?

In this sentence, it’s clear that the phrase is being used to tell Jimmy to forget what happened a long time ago and to move on—to not let the past stand in the way of the future. 

As another example:

You’re just making excuses for not going to church, Ashley. The laundry and other chores can wait. Let the dead bury the dead. 

Here, it’s clear that the speaker is asking Ashley to put God and her spiritual responsibilities first, before her other duties. 

You may also see or hear the phrase as let the dead bury their dead, as this is how it is written in the Bible (details below).

The Origin of the Expression

This expression appears twice in the New Testament:

  • But Jesus replies/said unto him, “Follow me, and let the dead bury their dead.” – Matthew 8:22
  • Jesus said to him, “Let the dead bury their own dead, but you go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” – Luke 9:60

These Bible verses tell the story of a man whom Jesus Christ had invited to become his disciple. The man refused, at least at the time, saying he first wanted to go and bury his father. Interpretations of the passage say that the man’s father wasn’t physically dead, however, and that the man was simply making excuses to not put Jesus first and dedicate himself to becoming his disciple. Hence, the meaning of the expression to put God or one’s spiritual responsibilities before all else. 

It could also be interpreted that Jesus is encouraging the man to focus on his new life versus his past, in which earthly duties mattered more than spiritual ones—thus the other common definition of the expression used today. But did Jesus mean the man should ignore his dead father? Remember, scholars believe the man’s aging father was alive, but think he was perhaps “spiritually dead,” one of those referred to as “unbelievers.” The interpretation isn’t that Jesus is telling the man not to physically bury his dead father, but to move away from his past and his past earthly responsibilities, and then to put Jesus first in all ways.

The expression let the dead bury the dead is also used in the final chapter of To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee: “Let the dead bury the dead this time, Mr Finch. Let the dead bury the dead.”

Understanding Idioms and Proverbs

Let the dead bury the dead can be considered both an idiom and a proverb. An idiom is a figurative expression with an intended meaning that typically can’t be understood just by looking at the literal definitions of the individual words that comprise it. Even if you’ve never heard the term idiom, you have most likely heard many idiomatic expressions. Here are just a few of the most common idioms used today:

You’re in hot water.
His boss gave him the ax.
It’s time to face the music.
You’ve hit the nail on the head.

If you took the first example literally, you’d think it was describing a person standing in a bathtub full of hot water, perhaps. But the expression is actually used to describe a person who’s in trouble. Likewise, rather than literally being handed a tool for chopping wood, if you get the ax from your boss, it means you’re getting fired. It’s time to face the music means that it’s time to come to terms with the consequences of your actions. And when someone has hit the nail on the head, they’ve gotten an answer exactly right or done something exactly as it should have been done.

Look at the literal meaning conveyed by the words in the phrase, and you’d think let the dead bury the dead means dead people should bury other people who are dead. And that makes no sense at all! How could someone who has passed away physically bury another dead body?! You now know the figurative meanings of this phrase, either that a person should put God first or that they should let the past stay in the past and move forward.

This expression is also thought of as a proverb. A proverb is a short, common phrase or saying that imparts advice or shares a universal truth. Synonyms of the term proverb include adage, aphorism, and maxim. Here are some additional examples of well-known proverbs:

Blood is thicker than water.
A picture is worth a thousand words.
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

Don’t judge a book by its cover. 

In fact, let the dead bury the dead isn’t the only idiom and proverb with a biblical origin. A version of the phrase like father like son appears in the Bible. Perhaps surprisingly, though, the phrases God helps those who help themselves and cleanliness is next to godliness don’t appear in the Bible. 

Learn the meanings of many more idioms and proverbs here.

Summary

Let the dead bury the dead is an expression used either to encourage someone to put spiritual responsibilities first above all else, or to encourage a person not to dwell in the past and to move on from old problems and conflicts for the sake of their own well-being. The version let the dead bury their dead appears twice in the New Testament of the Bible.