In Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird, Heck Tate says, “There’s a black boy dead for no reason, and the man responsible for it's dead. Let the dead bury the dead this time, Mr. Finch. Let the dead bury the dead.” What does he mean?
Sheriff Heck Tate is a born-and-bred citizen of Maycomb County, Alabama, Harper Lee's fictional town at the heart of To Kill a Mockingbird. He is a fundamentally honest man who performs his responsibilities professionally and competently. He displays no overt signs of being particularly racist. He is a lawman, through and through, and he is interested in justice, at least within the confines of his legal authorities. When he testifies in the rape trial of Tom Robinson, the physically-disabled African American wrongly accused of raping Mayella Ewell, daughter of the county's most virulently racist citizen, Bob Ewell, his comments are straightforward and to-the-point. He is also friendly to Atticus, the infinitely wise and honest lawyer tasked with defending Tom, and who is also, of course, the father of Scout, Lee's main protagonist and narrator. It is because of Heck Tate's basic honesty and commitment to justice that he is willing to let the violent death of Bob Ewell pass unaddressed. The evidence appears to point to Boo, who would hate the attention he would receive for saving Scout and Jem. It is precisely because of the vast distinction between Ewell and the Finch family that Sheriff Tate views the former's death as representing a just denouement of the rape trial that ended with Tom's conviction and subsequent death in prison. As Atticus argues that justice, and his children's perceptions of their father, demand that the full truth of Bob Ewell's death be made public, Tate struggles to convince his friend that justice has been served and that dragging Boo through the criminal justice system would serve only to compound the injustices caused by Ewell's racist attitudes. As this encounter develops in Chapter 30 of Lee's novel, the sheriff makes the following observation:
I’m not a very good man, sir, but I am sheriff of Maycomb County. Lived in this town all my life an‘ I’m goin’ on forty-three years old. Know everything that’s happened here since before I was born. There’s a black boy dead for no reason, and the man responsible for it’s dead. Let the dead bury the dead this time, Mr. Finch. Let the dead bury the dead.
In making these comments, Sheriff Tate is emphasizing that the scales of justice, so heavily tilted against the now-dead Tom Robinson, have finally been balanced on account of Bob Ewell's death.
Sheriff Tate’s expression of “let the dead bury the dead” is another way of saying “put this matter to rest.” In hopes of returning Maycomb back to its normal, everyday routine, Sheriff Tate attempts to avoid more controversy by telling the public Bob Ewell fell on his own knife. Tate says that he’s already seen an innocent black man dead for no reason, and the man responsible for it is dead. (30.369) Mr. Tate says it would be a sin to take Boo Radley and his “shy ways” and force him into the limelight by telling the town what exactly happened. He admits to Atticus that he “may not be much,” referring to errors he’s made in past decisions regarding racial affairs, but feels that he is doing right thing protecting Boo Radley. By letting the dead bury the dead, the controversial events and emotional wounds surrounding the Tom Robinson case will have time to heal.