What happens to us when we die, the fear of the unknown, has manifested in a variety of strange and unusual customs that try to put the dead in the best position possible for the next step. One of these customs is that of a Sin Eater. Sin Eaters have existed since the 1600s, and potentially earlier, and were popular amongst the UK, especially in rural or isolated areas. Sin Eaters were said to be able to take on the sins of the dead, thus allowing the dead a guilt-free afterlife.
Sin Eaters were often hired with sudden death or in the event that a priest could not be reached to give last rites. In a way, a Sin Eater would absolve the deceased of their sins by taking them on himself, thus releasing the deceased from the responsibilities of their last mortal sins.
Sin Eating sounds a bit more gruesome than the actual ritual actually was. Although it varied throughout the centuries and in different parts of the UK, it essentially involved eating a ritual meal which would transfer the deceased’s sins unto the eater. Sometimes, the meal would be enough payment but in some situation, there was also a monetary award in addition to the meal.
In some cases, the food would have touched the corpse or even be laid out on top of the corpse to be consumed by the Sin Eater. Most of the time, however, the meal would simply have to be eaten in the presence of the deceased person. Once the meal was finished and any money exchanged, the family members of the deceased would drive him out of the house while hurling insults and small items like sticks and cinders.
Additionally, a prayer or poem would sometimes be recited by the Sin Eater as he ate to finish out the ritual. For example, the Vintage News quotes:
“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.”
In some folkloric beliefs, in addition to absolving sins, it was also said that Sin Eaters would help prevent the formation of ghosts or a feeling of unfinished business from the soul of the deceased to wander the home or haunt the surrounding area.
Although taking on others’ sins seems like it would be quite an intense affair, Sin Eaters were by no means rich. In addition to the free food, Sin Eaters would often only get a small payment, roughly a half-shilling or a shilling if they were lucky. Sadly, this barely covered the cost of even one meal.
Sin Eaters were heavily stigmatized in communities, despite the need for them and their work. Often, Sin Eaters were already destitute and often lived in solitude and did not play a major part in the village. The villagers would often shun Sin Eaters, as it was believed with each ceremony they became more and more evil as they filled themselves with sins.
The header image is from Unsplash and was published prior to 5 June 2017 under the Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication. Photographer: Asthetik.