I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.
Richard Munslow, the last known sin eater in England, died in 1906. On September 19, 2010, he was the subject of a special church service in the village of Ratlinghope, Shropshire to mark the restoration of his grave. BBC News reports that, “It took a few months to raise the £1,000 needed to pay for the work.”
Munslow took up the ancient trade after suffering what for most would be unbearable tragedy. He watched helplessly as four of his children died, three of them in the space of a single week, in 1870. He seems to have become a sin eater as a way of dealing with his terrible grief.
Sin Eaters Active Throughout Europe
Found throughout the British Isles as well as continental Europe, the practice of sin eating probably passed down from pagan times and survived until about 100 years ago.
The premise of the ritual was that the moral lapses of the deceased could be taken into the soul of another person. Thus purified, the dearly departed would be assured of a quick passage to heaven rather than the other place.
The origins of the practice are a bit murky. Some say it can be traced to death rituals in ancient Egypt.
Maybe, it came out of the Jewish tradition of releasing a goat into the wilderness at Yom Kippur. The animal was viewed as the embodiment of sin and sending it into the desert to die would take all of the offences against God with it. It was the scapegoat; something to take on the blame of others.
One theory of a more recent provenance is advanced by British historian Dr. Ruth Richardson. She thinks sin eating might have grown out of the habit of nobles to give food to the poor at the time of a funeral in the family. In exchange for a meagre meal, the lowly herd were supposed to pray for the well-being of the deceased.
Practice Survived into Modern Times
In Funeral Customs, Bertram S. Puckle (1926) equates sin eating to the tribal tradition of slaughtering animals on the grave of deceased people. “In the same manner,” he writes, “it was the province of the human scapegoat to take upon himself the moral trespasses of his client―and whatever the consequences might be in the after life―in return for a miserable fee and a scanty meal.”
He expressed astonishment that the ritual still existed within the living memory of people at the time he wrote his book.
Ceremony Opposed by Christian Church
The notion of sin eating was frowned upon by the established church, which deemed itself the sole purveyor of absolution; religious authorities were not interested in having competition for their services.
Given a bit of warning that the Grim Reaper was about to add to his harvest, the ailing person could call upon the priest and make a confession. Thus absolved he or she could pass away in peace. But, sudden death by accident presented a unique problem. Having died without confession and spiritual cleansing the local sin eater was needed.
However, the practice continued under the watchful eye of many country vicars, until it died out in the early 20th century, along with lots of other ancient superstitions that fell prey to reason and scientific inquiry.
The Reverend Norman Morris of Ratlinghope is quoted by the BBC as saying, “It was a very odd practice and would not have been approved of by the church but I suspect the vicar often turned a blind eye to the practice.”
More than a Tiny Bit Creepy; Viewer Discretion is Advised
Sin Eating Ceremony Described
In 1852, Matthew Moggridge described the process at a meeting of the Cambrian Archaeological Society: “When a person died, the friends sent for the sin eater of the district, who on his arrival places a piece 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.”
The sin eater’s prayer was: “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.” A small fee accompanied the ritual and he was often given beer or wine.
The belief was that the bread absorbed the accumulated sins of the dead one and that by consuming the bread the sin eater took possession of those misdeeds.
Sin Eaters Shunned by Society
Except for when their services were required, sin eaters usually lived alone and apart from the community, for few would risk being friendly with someone so loaded up with the crimes of scores of people.
As a result, the work fell to the least fortunate people, beggars and the like, who had few other options for making a living. As Moggridge described it, the sin eater “was utterly detested in the neighbourhood―regarded as a mere Pariah―as one irremediably lost.”
For someone filled with other people’s sins it was obviously a good idea to be an atheist and so avoid the occupational hazard of ending up in hell.
Sin eating provided a benefit to the living as well. It was believed that once purified of all their naughtiness, the corpses would rest peacefully in their graves for eternity. They would not join the tortured souls of the undead wandering the Earth and scaring the wits out of people.
Immigrants took the practice of sin eating to America where it settled in Appalachia. There are unverified accounts of sin eating rituals being held in North Carolina, West Virginia, and Virginia into the 1950s.
- “Slow Travel Shropshire.” Marie Kreft, Bradt Travel Guides, 2016.
- “Death, Dissection and the Destitute.” Dr. Ruth Richardson, University of Chicago Press, 2001.
- “The Worst Freelance Gig in History Was Being the Village Sin Eater.” Natalie Zarrelli, Atlas Obscura, July 14, 2017.
- “Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics.” James Hastings, Kessinger Publishing, 2003.
- “Welsh Sketches.” Ernest Silvanus Appleyard, Sanford Press, 2009.
- “Last ‘Sin-Eater’ Celebrated with Church Service.” BBC News, September 10, 2010.
© 2017 Rupert Taylor
Kari Poulsen from Ohio on October 11, 2017:
I have never heard of sin-eaters until now. Very interesting history of them. :)