Tag: Let the dead bury their own dead – meaning

“Let the Dead Bury their Dead” – Meaning

“Let the Dead Bury their Dead” – Meaning

Matthew 8:22 which records Jesus saying to one of His disciples, “Follow me and let the dead bury their (own) dead,” is one of the most misquoted and misinterpreted texts in the Bible. What is really the meaning of Jesus’ statement “Let the dead bury their dead?”

A couple of weeks ago, my mom told me how my aunt (my late dad’s half-sister) was planning to dig up my grandfather’s bones (her dad’s), buried in one of his properties far from where we are at present, in order to bury them next to her mom’s grave.

Although the elderly in our town has determined that my grandfather’s remains must be buried next to his first wife, my dad’s mom, my aunt who is the second family of my grandfather decided otherwise. This is because the wife of my uncle, my dad’s only remaining sibling, did not agree to the concept of digging up a loved one’s bones and having them buried in a new grave.

My aunt’s disagreement with the idea of digging up a family member’s bones and transferring them to a new grave stem from her misinterpretation of Matthew 8:21-22. She thinks the Bible condemns this practice based on Jesus’ harsh response to one of his disciples.

What did Jesus mean when He said “Let the dead bury their own dead?”

A major mistake that people make when interpreting the Bible is that they do not interpret it based on context. In order to properly interpret any passage in the Bible; you have to understand its meaning based on the context of the author’s culture and perspective.

Matthew 8:21-22 is one classic example of how many Bible readers miss the context because they are attempting to interpret it from the Bible alone. When we do this, we can come up with a wide variety of interpretations.

Christians who are not in favor of giving our dead loved ones a proper burial use this text to justify their belief. They argue that Jesus Himself did not give it that much importance as evidenced by His answer to one of His disciples requesting for a leave of absence in order to bury his father.

Interpreting Jesus’ Words

In this passage, Jesus and His disciples were crossing to the other side of the lake when one of His disciples hesitated so he made an excuse to first go bury his father. But Jesus rebuked him with a statement of irony and challenged the disciple to follow Him.

Some consider what Jesus said to be harsh, suggesting that He was encouraging His disciples to break the 5th commandment, “Honor your father and mother” (Exodus 20:12), by not giving their fathers a proper burial. If Jesus was in fact telling this disciple to ignore his father’s burial, He would be causing a violation of this commandment.

Some also suggest that what Jesus really meant is, “Let the spiritually dead (or unregenerate) bury the physically dead.” Those who hold to this interpretation generally omit the words their own’ to distinguish between two meanings of the word dead. “Let the spiritually dead bury the physically dead.”

However, there’s no need to spiritualize the text regarding the dead because they are both dead. The text indicates that both occurrences of dead are connected in a reflexive possessive relation.

This interpretation of the text means that the burial of a dead family member should never get in the way of a Christian’s ministry of preaching and sharing the gospel of Jesus Christ. Instead, he should just let the non-Christian members of his family take care of the burial ceremony.

A second incident is recorded in Luke 9:59-60. Another disciple asked to first go bury his father when Jesus called him to be His follower. Jesus rebuked him with the same stern statement and added the phrase, “But you go and preach the kingdom of God.”

The man was not supposed to postpone accepting the call to follow Jesus as an active disciple. And the same applies to anyone who wants to become a follower of Jesus today.

The problem I see with these two interpretations is that they are not consistent with the text and with Jewish burial practices of the first century AD.

First Century Jewish Burial Practices

Did you know that in Jesus’ culture, the obligation to bury one’s father took precedence even over saying the Shema (The Challenge of Jesus: Rediscovering Who Jesus Was and Is by N.T. Wright)? So how could Jesus tell His disciples not to go bury their fathers?

According to first-century Jewish burial customs, when a person died, they were normally buried immediately (usually on the same day) in the family burial cave that had been hewn out of bedrock.

This custom is based on the injunction found in the Mosaic Law not to leave the corpse of an executed person on the tree overnight (Deuteronomy 21:22-23).

Let the dead bury their dead - meaning

After the body was placed in a burial cave and is left to decompose, the family will separate itself and mourn for seven days. This initial mourning period is called shivah which is followed by a less intense 30-day period of mourning called shloshim.

However, the entire mourning period was not fully over. The final act of mourning is when the family would return after a year to gather all the bones and place them with the bones of other family members on another shelf or the floor. This is now the secondary burial, also referred to as ossilegium.

Note: Having been influenced by Roman and Greek practices, Jewish burial became much more costly. Part of this extravagance was to take the bones of the dead and place them in an ossuary (bone box) with the name of the dead written on the box, instead of placing them on a shelf or floor.

The Secondary Burial

Burial customs from about 20 BC to AD 70 in the vicinity of Jerusalem involved a reinterment of the bones a year after the initial burial, once the flesh had rotten away.

In the Jerusalem Talmud, it says, “When the flesh had wasted away, the bones were collected and placed in chests (ossuaries). On that day (the son) mourned, but the following day he was glad because his forebears rested from judgment” (Moed Qatan 1:5).

Let the dead bury their dead - meaning

I believe it is this secondary burial that is in view in Jesus’ response. As Jesus would have never told someone not to bury their father, the only conclusion is that the man was referring to this second burial.

The disciple’s request and Jesus’ response make good sense in light of the Jewish custom of secondary burial.

When the disciple requested time to bury his father, he was actually asking for time to finish the rite of secondary burial. His dead father had already been placed in the family burial cave; his family had gone through shivah and shloshim, and he was requesting anywhere from a few weeks up to 11 months to finish the ritual of ossilegium before returning to Jesus.

Jesus’ Response

When Jesus said, “Let the dead bury their own dead,” in reply to the disciple requesting for a leave of absence to go bury this father, He must be referring to two different kinds of the dead in the tomb: the bones of the deceased which had already been placed in ossuaries and the fathers who had yet to be buried. The phrase “own dead” indicates the inclusion of the fathers among the dead.

It should be noted that traditional Jewish burial customs require dead family members to be buried in a common family sepulcher. So in the tombs, along with the fathers, were other family members who had died, some awaiting secondary burial, others already placed in ossuaries.

Jesus was saying in essence, “Look, you have already honored your father by giving him a proper burial in the family burial cave. Instead of waiting for the flesh to decompose, go preach the kingdom of God and tell the people that faith alone in Christ is the only true means of atonement.”


Does Jesus forbid Christians from burying their dead family members? No! Does Jesus forbid the second interment? Not at all! Jesus does not condemn primary and secondary burials but how you conduct your burial is what matters.

We may have some traditions that do not line up with the Word of God before we came into the knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus. Most of us try so hard to hold on to them and we don’t want to let go, especially those funeral activities we inherited from our forefathers.

But now that we are in Christ, we must put the Word of God above any other authority. We must prioritize the Kingdom of God above anything else and be faithful to our calling. God and His kingdom must take first priority in our lives.

When the disciple asked to be removed from following Jesus for 11 months, Jesus rebuked him in order to challenge and encourage him to faithfully follow Him. Jesus was letting the disciple know that following Him must take first priority (Matthew 10:37-38).

Let the dead bury their dead - meaning
Photo Credits: Light of Christ

The disciple’s request for a leave of absence in order to bury his father meant a long postponement of the discipleship Jesus was offering him. Jesus’ reply may have sounded harsh but so as His words in many other places such as in Matthew 10:37-38 & Luke 14:26.

Of course, Jesus does not advocate actually hating one’s family. What He was saying is that everyone who wants to follow Him has to love and serve Him more than anything else, their own lives and even their own families.

There is a sense of urgency to go preach the good news of salvation into all corners of the earth, especially now that we are already in the last days. Jesus would come back at any time so we must be all the more eager to fulfill the great commission (Matthew 28:19-20).