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.
Sin-Eaters Were Looked Down Upon And Poorly Compensated
The sin-eater was basically the psychic toilet of the town: his duty was to take on and contain the filthy sins of others. However, unlike today's sanitation workers, who tend to make pretty decent wages, sin-eaters received almost nothing for their trouble. As OMG Facts puts it:
"The Sin-Eater served a dual purpose: he saved the departed from hell, but also prevented them from wandering the Earth as ghosts. In other words, he performed a service for both the living and the dead, which is a pretty big client base. Considering that, it’s even more outrageous that he got paid squat to do it: about half a shilling per job, which is the equivalent of a couple dollars by today’s standards."
At best, in other words, the sin-eater got a free meal out of the whole thing. And maybe a free night of drunkenness, too, which he probably sorely needed, considering the increasingly heavy psychological burden he was carrying.
The Last (Known) Sin-Eater Died In 1906Photo: Wikimedia Commons
The last known official sin-eater, Richard Munslow of Shropshire, died (and was buried in semi-disgrace) in 1906, which still seems like a fairly contemporary era by sin-eating standards. However, Munslow's legacy, along with the merit of being a sin-eater in general, has since been more or less redeemed. In 2010, the BBC reported that Shropshire had raised £1,000 (about $1,280.00) to restore the grave of Munslow. A service was performed over the burial spot, though the Reverend Norman Morris, who officiated, also pointed out that he had "no desire to reinstate the ritual that went with it."
Sin-Eating Was Also Said To Be A Good Way To Prevent HauntingsPhoto: Casper / Amblin Entertainment
Sin-eating didn't just clear a soul for takeoff into heaven: it also prevented the soul from becoming an eternally earthbound ghost. As Week in Weird puts it:
"It was said that with the deceased’s sins absorbed by the sin-eater, they had no reason to rise from the grave and wander the Earth in discontent. Forgiven, and resting peacefully, they could remain in the grave to the ease of all those left behind."
Remain in the grave 'til Judgment Day or ascend outright: their choice. But since the sin-eater's much-feared and "unransomable soul" was left to "wander in the wilderness" in its free time, it essentially ended up performing the function of a wayward ghost, anyway.