Browsing Daily News

Father Richard Kunst: Let the dead bury their dead — really?

In the year 2000, my last two grandparents died, first my paternal grandfather in February and then my maternal grandmother a few months later. In both instances I happened to be in Europe and was unable to see them in their final hours, which I very much regret. When my dad’s dad died, they were able to hold off and delay the funeral for a few days so that I was able to be present, and I actually presided over his funeral. When my mom’s mom died later that year, they buried her the next day, so I was obviously not able to be there for her funeral. 

Father Richard Kunst

The difference in my last two grandparent’s funerals was that my grandpa was Catholic and my grandmother was Jewish. As Catholics we have no problem holding off on funerals, and if the deceased is cremated, delaying funerals becomes even more common. 

But for observant Jews, it is unthinkable to delay a funeral, and for very good reason. It has been a long-held Jewish belief that the soul of the deceased does not start its journey to God until after the person has been buried: that the soul literally stays near the body in a confused state until that body is buried, and even then the journey to God is not complete until the body has decayed. 

In the Old Testament and New Testament alike there is great emphasis put on the burying of the dead. For Catholics, we call it a corporal work of mercy to bury the dead. But for the Jewish people it was of heightened importance, because they did not want to delay their loved one’s journey back to God. 

We can understand why, when Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead after four days, there was a slight protest by his sister, who said that by now there would be a stench to open the tomb. In the Jewish mindset, Lazarus was already well on his way back to God, which makes the resuscitation of his body all the more bewildering to the original Jewish audience. 

Another equally well-known Gospel passage takes on a whole new meaning when we understand this Jewish belief. A would-be disciple approaches Jesus and says, “Lord, let me go and bury my father first.” But Jesus told him, “Follow me and let the dead bury their dead” (Matthew 8:21-22). From a Catholic perspective, we might interpret this as Jesus making clear that nothing is more important than following him, not even tending to our recently deceased parents, and that may very well be an accurate and appropriate interpretation. But remember, Jesus was Jewish, and he was talking to people who were Jewish, so we can’t escape the fact that the intent behind these words of Jesus must also be seen through that Jewish lens. 

When Jesus responded to this man wanting to be a disciple, not only did his reply make obvious that discipleship comes second to nothing, but also if one is called to follow Christ there is no room to hem and haw, being indecisive. The first Apostles were the best examples of this: When Peter, Andrew, James, and John were called by Christ to become fishers of men, the Gospel said that they left everything to follow him, and they did it immediately. Their call remains the model of complete Christian discipleship that Jesus is calling for in his “let the dead bury their dead” comment. 

In saying all of this, it is important to note that the call to discipleship is not the same thing as discerning a vocation. As a former vocations director, I can speak to the great importance in taking the time to see: Is it indeed God who is calling, or is it something entirely different? To discern the priesthood or any other lifelong vocation should take years. 

The saying “let the dead bury their dead” did, however, apply to guys who were sitting on the fence about entering the seminary. During the 11 years I was in that position, the diocese lost more than a few potential seminarians who just couldn’t make the leap of faith, and as a result they become tepid and never entered the seminary. They may very well have lost their vocation. 

This famous saying by Jesus about burying the dead is not only about the importance of following Jesus but the immediacy of it, as well. 

Father Richard Kunst is pastor of St. James and St. Elizabeth in Duluth. Reach him at [email protected].