Kristin Lisenby Kristin Lisenby
4 minute read

When faced with the ever-punctual arrival of Death, there are many end-of-life rituals said to carry us into the beyond. There are simple things, like visiting with family and friends to pay respects, share stories, and offer mementos. On the more formal side, a priest or spiritual guide might offer last rites and receive our final confession.  And if we lived in the British Isles during the 17th or 18thcenturies, we might also be visited by the local sin-eater.

What is Sin-Eating?

Despite the sinister name, the sin-eater’s story is one of love, not evil. This person was tasked with removing any lingering impurities from a person’s soul before being laid to rest. They played an important role within a community, and all they required was the family’s permission and a bit of food.

In parts of England, Scotland, and Wales, when a person died, their family called the sin-eater. The family would bathe and dress the body, then bake bread and brew beer to place atop the deceased person. After the food passed over the body, the sin-eater would eat and drink everything, and in doing so, purify the soul for the afterlife.

Who was the Sin-Eater?

Usually, the sin-eater was a man dressed in rags or a simple black suit. Despite always having customers, the sin-eater was not wealthy. His origin is debatable, with some claiming that people became sin-eaters out of economic desperation. The Brewers Dictionary of Phrase and Fable supports this claim, explaining that a family might hire a random poor person to accompany them to a funeral, sit beside the corpse, say an incantation over the food, and eat their sins. In this scenario, sin-eating was necessary, but it wasn’t a sacred act reserved for the few. Others claim that people became sin-eaters by choice – usually to atone for guilt or if they were mourning a great loss.

However, many believe this tradition wasn’t born from a person’s economic need or guilt, but from a combination of folklore and Pagan ritual. Unfortunately, because these stories were often passed down orally and without a written record, many important details were lost to time. But perhaps the mysterious circumstances surrounding sin-eating were intentional and a way to protect those who performed the funerary rite. According to the church, only priests and appointed officials had the power to absolve someone of their sins. So, while history suggests sin-eating was a widely practiced custom until the 20th century, it was also illegal.

The Plight of the Sin-Eater

Sin-eaters played an integral role in society, but they were not admired like priests or other spiritual assistants. Sin-eaters were often shunned from the community, looked down upon, and feared. It was considered bad luck to make eye contact with a sin-eater, and they were rarely seen interacting with the public outside of work. People’s fear of sin-eaters likely stemmed from their proximity to the supernatural. Not only did they take on the sins of others, but people believed that if you got too close to a sin-eater, you might tempt death before your time.

The last known sin-eater was Richard Munslow of Shropshire, who died in 1906. Unlike the traditional sin-eaters, Richard was a well-to-do farmer. He explained that he became a sin-eater out of need – not his, but his community’s. He believed that sin-eating was a sacred practice. Not only did he offer support to mourning widows and families who’d been touched by death, but he made sure that no meddlesome spirits returned to haunt the living.

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