Sin-Eaters Ate Meals Off Of Corpses' Chest To Symbolically Absolve The Dead Of Their Impure Deeds

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.

Photo: The Last Supper/Giovanni Pietro Rizzoli/The Royal Academy of Arts, London

  • 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.)

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • "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."

  • 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 1906

    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."