In 18th and 19th Century Scotland, families placed a piece of bread on the breasts of their dying loved ones. That’s not the strange part — the families then hired someone to eat the bread, believing that the practice would somehow absolve the sins of the deceased. Where did this strange ritual come from? And what sort of people worked as Sin Eaters?
Death and Dine
Eating food at a funeral (or shortly thereafter) is not uncommon — large family dinners often follow the death of a loved one, while drinking has been a cornerstone of wakes for the past couple of centuries.
But Sin Eaters were different — because they had a very singular role within some segments of Christianity. Sin Eaters performed a ceremony wherein they took on the sins that the deceased performed — sins that went unforgiven or without confession prior to death. People typically hired a Sin Eater in situations where the deceased died unexpectedly.
By consuming bread and a drink (usually wine or beer) placed on, or ritually waved over, the dead body, onlookers believed the dead person's sins were digested by the eater after he or she consumed this beggar's feast. The act appears to be confined to 18th and 19th Century Europe, with no accounts of necro-cannibalism noted.
In time, the practice expanded in popularity, so that Sin Eaters also attended to people who had just died of natural causes — because people believed the ritual could help prevent the dead from wandering the countryside after death.
This wasn't an especially well-paid job — the Sin Eater would receive a half-shilling or more, in addition to the scant meal. A half-shilling amounts to no more than a couple of US dollars when inflation is accounted for.
No amount of money paid, however, could overcome the social stigma stemming from a Sin Eaters’s line of work, or ameliorate the poverty and solitude most officiates lived amidst. Each village typically had its "own" Sin Eater, and the villagers believed this individual would become more and more horrible, with each and every ceremony.
Sin eaters often came under church scrutiny, since the sin eater did not have an affiliation with a local church. The eaters willfully carried the sins of the deceased for the rest of their mortal lives, going against the teachings of many sects of Christianity that were active in 18th and 19th Century Europe.
The practice of sin eating could be seen as a very macabre and misguided take on a Jewish tradition. Jewish priests would use a goat as a physical manifestation of the sins of the Jewish people, releasing the goat into the wilderness during Yom Kippur.
The use of Sin Eaters appears to have ceased in the early 20th Century. Immigrants possibly carried out in the tradition in Appalachian areas of the United States.
Heath Ledger battled a modern Sin Eater in the 2003 film The Order, but you are better off skipping that movie and just checking out the trailer above. A 1972 episode of Rod Serling's Night Gallery, "The Sins of the Father", portrays an eerie dramatization of the practice, with the full episode currently streaming at Hulu.
Top image via ravensong75/Flickr.