The “Sin-Eater” is a profession that survived until the last century: in short, grieving family members of a recently deceased would pay these characters to rid their departed loved ones from all the sins they had accumulated during their lives, and the sin-eaters would then perform an eerie ritual that supposedly allowed the dead to enter Heaven.
Documents dating back to 1680 define “funeral in traditional style” as those involving the intervention of these characters, and as soon as the rumor of a death spread, especially if sudden or accidental, it was common to see them queuing up at the funeral, looking for the work.
The rite, with few variables, took place like this: the family who wanted to cleanse the conscience of the deceased one put a loaf, a plate of salt and a glass of beer on his chest so that they absorbed his sins. Then came the Sin Eater, ate the meal in front of everyone and whispered his ritual: “I give easement and rest now to thee, dear man. Come not down the lanes or in our meadows. And for thy peace, I pawn my own soul. Amen.”
The fee was around 4 pennies, corresponding to a handful of euros today. At the end of the ritual, the officiant was removed without saying a word and the bowl, plate and glass used were burned.
Such practice may seem strange or even downright frightening, but, in the opinion of many contemporary anthropological and ethnological studies, their origins lie in the beginnings of Christianity.
Jesus Christ himself, according to the Bible, willingly sacrificed his life to cleanse humanity of all of their sins, serving as the role model to the original sin-eaters, who offered their souls to purify the souls of the departed.
Sin-eaters were seen as those who not only enabled the souls of the dead to safely ascend to Heaven, but also as those who prevented the sin-plagued dead from returning to Earth in spectral form as ghosts or wraiths.
Although in great demand (some villages kept an official Sin Eater) it was a job at the bottom of the social ladder, below the executioner.
Taking on the sins of the dead, after each ritual the Sin Eaters were considered more impure, damned and destined to hell, sometimes dedicated to witchcraft, therefore avoided by everyone and forced to live far from the villages.
Furthermore, the lives of sin-eaters were not only lonely but also quite dangerous. Since the Catholic Church had a monopoly on the absolution of sins and the members of the clergy were the only people allowed to perform absolution rituals, sin-eating was outlawed and punishable by death.
Not only those who conducted the sin-eating but also those who employed sin-eaters to rid their dead loved ones of sins were seen as heretics, blasphemers, and worshippers of Satan. Therefore, they were usually forced to keep their business shrouded in a veil of secrecy.
There are traces of Sin Eater since at least the early 1600’s in different cultures scattered all over the world, but the most certain stories comes from England, Scotland and Wales, where the last Sin Eater, Richard Munslow, worked until 1906, year of his death, in Ratlinghope, a village in England’s West Midlands county of Shropshire. Unlike the majority of sin-eaters, who usually came from poor families and were often beggars or drunkards, Munslow was born in a wealthy family and was a respectable farmer.
He, according to the local stories, entered the sin-eating business purely out of kindness and love for his fellow villagers; he offered to absorb the sins of the recently deceased to continue a once prominent tradition that had died out during the mid-19th century.
In 2010, the citizens of Ratlinghope, led by Reverend Norman Morris, collected a thousand pounds to restore his grave, which had fallen into disrepair.
Traces of this custom survive still today in various cultures, where food is often associated with death, from Mexico to Sicily, in Southern Italy.
In Upper Bavaria the “cake of the dead” is placed on the chest of the deceased before being eaten by the closest relative, in the Balkans a small image of the deceased is made with bread which is then eaten by the family. In some ares of the Netherlands the initials of the deceased are inscribed on the so-called “dead cakes”. In the United States, from Alabama to Pennsylvania, the legend is told of mysterious wanderers who wander the countryside, steal food and in return absorb the sins of the dead.
Images from web – Google Research