Weird History Zany Facts About "Sin-Eating," The English Tradition Of Eating A Meal Off Of A Corpse's Chest  

Lisa A. Flowers
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Dying before you've had a chance to be absolved of your sins is a huge predicament to find yourself in but, once you're dead, there's no going back (as far as most people are concerned, anyway). How, then, does a spirit go about acquiring a get-out-of-hell-free card? In 18th- and 19th-century Scotland and Wales, the doorway to deliverance came by way of Catholic "sin-eaters." The term is as literal as it is figurative: sin-eaters were tasked with actually eating a meal off a corpse's chest. In doing so, they symbolically consumed the sins of the deceased - thereby taking them on themselves. However, rather than being seen as a selfless and heroic act, eating someone's sins was looked upon with horror, and the sin-eater was basically ostracized (at least until they were needed again) for being a rancid, crime-accumulating plague.

To find out how to become a sin-eater (and/or to explore one of history's most fascinating and bizarre occupations), read on.

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Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The Church Thought Of Sin-Eaters As Being "Competition" - And Sometimes Sought To Eliminate Them Altogether


Death, as everyone knows, is a profitable industry that's as reliably eternal as... well, death itself. So is the Church, of course, but back in the day, the latter was really serious about eliminating industry competition. As OMGFacts explains it: 

"The Roman Catholic Church viewed Sin Eaters as competition — an obstacle to its efforts to establish a monopoly on the sin-absolving industry. That meant Sin Eaters had to avoid church authorities at all costs or face execution."

It didn't stop there, either - authorities apparently employed fascist-like techniques for ensuring 100% domination in the form of doling out "harsh punishments" to families who sought the services of Sin Eaters. (Fortunately, however, these repercussions were hard to enforce, as sin-eating ceremonies were often performed clandestinely/under the radar.)

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Photo: The Taking of Deborah Logan/Millennium Entertainment/Alchemy

Every Village Had Its Own Designated Sin-Eater


Even though sin-eaters were looked upon with abject horror, they still provided a valuable service, and people knew it. That's why, as Wikisource explains it, "each village had its [own] official sin-eater to whom notice was given as soon as a death occurred. He at once went to the house, and there, a stool being brought, he sat down in front of the door."

All of this had to be done right under the nose of the execution-happy Church, of course, so being "on call" also meant potentially risking one's own hide for some quick cash.

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Photo: Night of the Living Dead/Walter Reade/Public Domain

Typical Meals Included "Dead Cakes" And "Funeral Biscuits"


In addition to alcohol (typically served in the form of wine or brown ale), the sin-eater was required to consume "Funeral Biscuits" or "Death Cakes," which were basically just exalted terms for the crusts of bread. As Wikisource describes it,:

"The sin-eater [was] taken into the death-chamber, and a piece of bread, and possibly cheese, [was] placed on the breast of the corpse by a relative, usually a woman. It was afterwards handed to the sin-eater, who ate it in the presence of the dead. He was then handed his fee, and at once hustled and thrust out of the house amid execrations, and a shower of sticks, cinders, or whatever other missiles were handy."

At other times, the woman of the house would pour out a glass of wine for the sin-eater and "hand it to him across the coffin with a 'Funeral Biscuit.'" The bottom line: some sin-eaters were treated better than others, and some (albeit very few) even managed to get themselves a full meal. But all ended their work days newly burdened with the crimes of the dead.

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"Eating" Someone's Sins Meant That Their Sins Were Transferred To You


Forget using a piece of toast to mop up some egg: using a sin-eater to mop up someone's sins was infinitely more effective. As Atlas Obscura puts it:

"The family who hired the sin-eater believed that the bread literally soaked up their loved one’s sins; once it had been eaten, all the misdeeds were passed on to the hired hand. The sin-eater’s own soul was heavy with the ill deeds of countless men and women from his village or town... Usually, the only people who would dare risk their immortal souls during such a religious era were the very poor... To those who believed in the powers of this ritual, sin-eaters were doing a necessary but distasteful job, literally becoming a bit more evil as they performed their task."

So much for the verse, "It's easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God."