In 17th and 18th century England, you could hire a sin-eater for a nominal fee to eat the sins of the dead.
Village in parts of England, Scotland, and Wales had their official sin-eater who was summoned as soon as a death occurred.
His job was to eat bread and drink ale across the body of someone who died suddenly.
He consumed the sins of the dead so that the deceased got the express track to God and arrived in a clean and pure state.
For believers, each time the sin-eater did his job, he literally becomes a bit more evil.
Despised by the superstitious villagers as a thing unclean, the sin-eater lived as an outcast, and everyone avoided him as they would a leper.
According to Brand’s Popular Antiquities of Great Britain, first published in 1813, the sin eater :
“sat down facing the door; they then gave him a groat, which he put in his pocket; a crust of bread, which he ate; and a full bowl of ale, which he drank oft’ at a draught; after this, getting up from his stool, he pronounced, with a composed gesture, ‘the ease and rest of the soul departed,’ for which he would pawn his own soul.”
The villagers made sure to burn the wooden bowl and platter from which the sin-eater had eaten the food.
Another harsher version (and one called “more realistic”) goes that a piece of bread -and possibly cheese- that had lain on the breast of the corpse is eaten by the sin-eater in the presence of the dead.
Sins consumed, he’s handed his fee, and at once hustled and thrust out of the house with curses, and a shower of sticks, cinders or whatever was handy.
Another example comes from Llandebie in 1892, a parish some miles north of Swansea, and was described as a custom that “survived to within a recent period”:
When a person died, the friends sent for a Sin-eater of the district, who on his arrival placed a plate of salt on the breast of the defunct, and upon the salt a piece of bread. He then muttered an incantation over the bread, which he finally ate, thereby eating up all the sins of the deceased. This done, he received his fee of 2s. 6d. and vanished as quickly as possible from the general gaze; for, as it was believed that he really appropriated for his own use and behoof the sins of all those over whom he performed the above ceremony, he was utterly detested in the neighbourhood – regarded as a mere Pariah – as one irredeemably lost.
A paper by Enid Porter, an East Anglian folklorist writing in 1958 explains how one early 19th-century sin-eater entered such a contemptible profession:
She took a large dose of poppy tea to render her unconscious. Neighbors sent for the minister, who, on seeing her, said it seemed she would not recover. He read the prayers for the dying and gave her absolution. Soon after his departure, the woman sat up and gradually recovered. She was then assured by her friends that as she was now free from her own sins by virtue of the absolution, she was now free to take on those of others.
The sin-eater, after eating half the bread and the little pile of salt placed on the shrouds of the dead, would receive as payment 30 pennies [one and a half shillings], which had been dipped in whitewash to make them resemble silver.
In any case, the custom of sin-eating is probably derived from the scapegoat (q.v.) from the 16th chapter of Leviticus.
All of this cut into the role of the clergy, which may be why sin-eating died out sometime in the 19th century.
The Last Sin Eater
Richard Munslow, a prominent Ratlinghope farmer who died in 1906 is said to be the “last-known sin eater.”
In the travel guide Slow Travel Shropshire, Marie Kreft explains that Munslow revived the practice not because of desperation, but due to sadness.
According to a local history site, he didn’t fit the profile of outcast and destitute sin-eater.
A member of a respected family, he farmed between 70 and 75 acres at Upper Darnford, employing two or three laborers.
He suffered the loss of four children in his lifetime, including three in a single week in 1870.
This tragedy may have driven him into the sin-eating trade, at first as a form of grieving, to help his children on into the afterlife.
There’s a happy ending to Munslow’s story.
In 2010, he became the only sin-eater to be commemorated with a ceremony and funeral of his own.