One of the strangest and darkest of professions is that of the sin eater; people paid them to consume the sins of a recently deceased person. This was done so the departed could avoid a miserable fate in the afterlife and prevent them from haunting this world as an unholy spectre.
From as early as the 1600s, right up to the early 20th century, becoming a sin eater was a viable, if somewhat macabre line of work. Originating from folklore and supernatural beliefs, the services of a sin eater would allow the recently departed to secure a place in heaven.
Sin eaters and those who accepted their grim services would often be regarded as blasphemers and heretics by the very church they were trying to appease.
The role of a sin eater was rather simple but due to its nature it wasn’t one many people would wish to pursue. The sin eater was hired to eat a morsel of food, usually bread or a pastry, from the face or body of a dead person.
The food placed on the body was believed to absorb the sins of the recently expired person. Consumption by someone else would mean the sins would be removed and the soul of the departed would go directly to heaven untarnished to enjoy an eternity of peace and happiness. It would also ensure they wouldn’t walk the earth as a ghost, or worse, be banished to the torment and damnation of hell forever.
While consuming the food the sin eater would often say a dedicated prayer, “I give easement and rest now to thee, dear man/woman. Come not down the lanes or in our meadows. And for thy peace, I pawn my own soul. Amen.”
Eating food from a dead, possibly diseased body was not the only drawback if you chose to become a sin eater. The community was often afraid of anyone who ‘pawned’ their own soul in return for money. The thought of someone carrying the burden of their own sins, as well as those of numerous others, meant the sin eater’s life was usually an isolated and lonely one. Just looking a sin eater directly in the eye was considered a sign of bad luck.
While they were grudgingly respected they was equally vilified, shunned and avoided. It was widely believed the act of sin eating used the darkest of magic involving witchcraft, supernatural forces and even invoking Satan himself – not a good thing with which to be associated in older days.
Due to the dangerous, unglamorous and intellectually unchallenging nature of the work, Sin eaters usually came from the more desperate elements of society and they were often drunks and beggars.
There are cases of people from more respected levels in society choosing the career as a way to genuinely help their community. One such man was Richard Munslow who died in 1906 in the village of Ratlinghope which is found in the county of Shropshire, England. He is also holds the distinction of being England’s last known sin eater.
Munslow was born to a family which had a respectable income and he worked as a farmer, popular with his contemporaries. It was claimed he became a sin eater out of purely altruistic reasons to help his neighbours reach glory and salvation after death.
It is worth noting that as recently as 2010 the good citizens of Ratlinghope collected thousands of pounds to repair Richard Munslow’s grave which, much like his chosen occupation, had succumbed to the ravages of time.
So perhaps modern society accepts the works of sin eaters and perhaps we may even see the return of sin eaters in the 21st century…
…well, perhaps not.
© Colin Lawson Books