Death is as much a part of living as being born. This morbid fact has been handled very differently by cultures throughout history. Much has been written on this site about mummification, from the accidental to the deliberate. Certainly mummification was a method among many cultures to attaining eternal peace in the afterlife. Christian cultures, on the other hand, believed that eternal life came in the spiritual realm. While it was important in many Christian sects to have a body buried whole and in consecrated ground, they believed that said body would be raised at judgment day and transmogrified into a new body that would meet God face to face. This is why the custom of profane burial in England and other parts of Europe was considered one of the ultimate sanctions—a body that was desecrated and buried in unconsecrated ground would not be able to participate in this great resurrection.
There were other strange customs in England surrounding the treatment of the dead. Like the profane burials, it was a collision of Christian theology and local folkways. Unlike the profane burials, it was not meant as a punishment toward the deceased but rather a way to absolve the deceased of any sins. This was done by having another person—dubbed a sin eater—take upon themselves the burden of that wickedness, by quite literally eating their sins.
Bread, salt, and milk (or beer)
Most funerary practices involve food in some way shape or form. Some cultures have specific meals that are traditionally eaten after a funeral, while in more modern times it’s customary to eat a meal after a funeral but it is not necessarily limited to traditional fare. The corpse is generally not present for such meals, depending on tradition.
In the custom of sin-eating, however, the corpse is very much present for the meal. In fact, it is central. The custom, which was mainly practiced in parts of Wales and Scotland, generally involved hiring an impoverished local to eat a meal over the body of the dead for the grand sum of six pence. The meal itself varied a bit from region to region, but generally speaking it consisted of bread, salt, and beer. Some regions swapped the beer for milk.
The idea was that, by consuming the food over the corpse, the sin-eater would take upon themselves the sin of the deceased. The custom was usually employed when someone died unexpectedly. Naturally, this did not sit well with local church officials, who saw it not only as superstition but perhaps as an affront to their own authority. Still, many priests looked the other way, since the custom lasted from at least the 17th century to the late 19th and early 20th century.
The Life of a Sin-Eater
Every community in areas where sin-eating was practiced had a village sin-eater. Typically these individuals were low status members of the community, who were desperate enough to take on the sins of others for money. With their ritual uncleanness came social stigmatization. As the village sin-eater partook in the ritual more often, they became more and more unclean in the eyes of their peers.
However, not all sin-eaters were social pariahs or poor, desperate beggars. The last known sin-eater, Richard Munslow, passed away in 1906. Running counter to the general trend, he was a prosperous farmer in the area around Shropshire village. So, not all the sin-eaters were necessarily outcasts, but neither was it an acceptable occupation. No mention seems to be made about what their fate would be for taking upon themselves the sins of others when their own death came. Perhaps if they were fortunate some kind soul would eat their sins and take that burden upon themselves, leaving the sin-eater in peace.
Brown, Erica. “Soul Food and Sin-Eating: Folklore, Faith, and Funerals.” ShapWorkingParty.org. 2009/10. The Shap working party on Education in Religions. November 1, 2015. http://www.shapworkingparty.org.uk/journals/articles_0910/browne.pdf
“Last ‘sin-eater’ celebrated with church service.” BBC.com. September 19, 2010. BBC News. November 1, 2015. http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-england-shropshire-11360659
“Sin eaters and sin eating.” Logoi.com. 2007. November 1, 2015 http://www.logoi.com/notes/sin-eaters.html
Veronese, Keith. “The Weird but True History of Sin Eaters.” Io9.com. April 30, 2013. Io9. November 1, 2015. http://io9.com/the-weird-but-true-history-of-sin-eaters-479990066