Sin Eaters

The term “Sin Eater” does sound like  the title of a dodgy horror film. In fact perhaps it is. I wouldn’t know. But I  came across it in a news item on the BBC last month (September 2010)
It is a fascinating idea and perhaps  you will not be surprised to learn that this ancient tradition survived in the  east of Wales and just over the border in Shropshire and Herefordshire longer  than anywhere else. Indeed, it was still practiced into the early 20th  century.
It is a bizarre adoption process I  suppose. After a death someone would be paid to eat and drink over the body. As  a result of the ritual the “sin eater” would take on the sins of the dead  person and their soul would then be able to rest, free of sin. The church  wasn’t that keen on the idea but often the local vicar would turn a blind eye  in order to keep his parishioners happy.
Often the ritual was performed by a beggar,  although some villages had a resident sin-eater. They would turn up at the  bedside, where a relative would place a crust of bread on the chest of the  dying and pass a bowl of beer to him. I imagine that if you thought you were  just a bit under the weather and the sin eater was lurking in the background,  waiting for a snack, you would start to worry. Anyway, after praying or  reciting the ritual, he would then drink and eat the bread, thus adopting the  sins of the dying.
As I said, it was mentioned on the  BBC in connection with the grave of Richard Munslow who died in Ratlinghope in  1906. The grave stone has recently been restored since he was a well known  farmer in the area who had a second career as a sin eater, munching on scraps  of bread whilst others squabbled about the inheritance. I would have thought  that for those with rather more interesting lives, a three course meal would  have been more appropriate than a dry crust in order to absolve them of sin,  but perhaps I am being unkind. However, I have to say it is odd to think that  this sort of thing was going on in the lifetime of my grandparents.
I end this piece with this passage  by B.S. Puckle in a book called Funeral Customs (1926) which goes to  show how odd people can be.

Professor Evans of the Presbyterian College, Carmarthen,  actually saw a sin-eater about the year 1825, who was then living near  Llanwenog, Cardiganshire. Abhorred by the superstitious villagers as a thing  unclean, the sin-eater cut himself off from all social intercourse with his  fellow creatures by reason of the life he had chosen; he lived as a rule in a  remote place by himself, and those who chanced to meet him avoided him as they  would a leper. This unfortunate was held to be the associate of evil spirits,  and given to witchcraft, incantations and unholy practices; only when a death  took place did they seek him out, and when his purpose was accomplished they  burned the wooden bowl and platter from which he had eaten the food handed  across, or placed on the corpse for his consumption

A bit mean when all is said and  done. You provide a valuable service and this is how you are treated. No wonder  that as a career option it never really caught on.

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