How Sin Eaters Saved The Dead & The Dying

May 25, 2022 0 comments

In 18th and 19th century England and Scotland, sin eating was a profession. Beggars, destitute and those in want of a measly morsel of nutrition took to the career path of relieving the deceased of their sins, by eating them. When a loved one lay dying on the bed, families would call one of these sin eaters home. They would lay a piece of bread on their chest and hover a glass of ale or wine in a customary manner. The sin eater, sitting at the tip of the bed, would then eat the bread off the chest of the deceased or dying; he would drink the glass full of liquid too. In doing so, the family believed that sins of their kin were absorbed into the foodstuff and taken in by the sin eater. This, rather dubiously, provided the departing a way into heaven.

Where Did the Sin Eaters Come From?

The origin of the macabre practice remains elusive. What is clear is that it was confined to the 18th and 19th century to only certain segments of Christianity. Sin eaters had no affiliation with churches, but instead came under their scrutiny for their consequential ‘evilness’. The Gift of Suffering by Ingrid Harris suggests that sin eating was used in Protestant practice. It was an effort to fill the gap left by the departed Catholic sacraments of confession and absolution. Sin eaters would often listen to confessions of the dying before they passed. The idea was to ensure that the victim’s sins were washed away before they set on their transcendental path. The need arose mostly when the death or affliction was sudden, leaving the dying no time to wash their own dirty linen. Other historians suggest that it oddly mimicked the custom of distributing bread among the poor upon someone's death. Some believe that it was a twisted take on the Jewish tradition where a goat was accepted as a manifestation of the deceased's sins, and let loose in the wilderness during Yom Kippur.

Despite its religious strongholds, sin eating was largely confined to the Welsh marches. It was a voluntary profession, taken on by those whose hunger overshadowed all sense of morality and mortality. But among the villagers, sin eaters were considered the lowliest of people—they got worse and darker with each job.

And yet, in their heyday, sin eaters replaced the role of priests. Each village has its own sin eater, and he or she was expected to attend funerals whenever someone passed. But otherwise they were social outcasts, not accepted in any other social or religious congregation. A job well done earned them a sixpence or two shillings—a meagre amount that hardly justified the eternal loss of peace. It was a deal with the devil—a piece of bread at the cost of a damned, sinning soul.

Gradual Decline

By the 20th century, the declining profession was seeing its own death. Priests were becoming all the rage once again. Little evidence of the activity was passed on in history, probably because of its pagan origins. The undeniable truth was that it was a shame to associate with heretical acts such as this one. Could this be a reason why sin eaters stopped being called into homes? Some say the tradition trickled into the United States by way of immigration to the Appalachia. But who knows?

A Ratlinghope churchyard contains the remains of the last known sin eater—Richard Munslow—who died in 1906. During his time he briefly revived the practice, though not out of desperation but grief. As Marie Kereft writes in Slow Travel Shropshire, Munslow possessed about 70 acres of land as a farmer. He lost four of his children, three within a week, which was a plausible reason why he took to the practice—in hopes to relieve sins and darkness. He was also the only sin eater who was granted a ceremonious funeral of his own. In 2010, £1,000 was raised to restore and repair his grave. Ironically as it may be, the practitioners finally got their farewell with due respect through Munslow.

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