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Odd History of The Sin Eaters

By James Donahue

There was a time when people hired "sin eaters" to enter the home of the dead and act to absorb the sins of the deceased by eating of bread and drink placed on the body.

The practice, which had its origins in Eighteenth Century Europe, appeared to have its origins in the Roman Catholic Church, where people worried about un-confessed sin in people who died unexpectedy.

By consuming the food and drink either placed on, or waved over the body, families and friends believed the sin eater literally digested the sins of the deceased. People who took payment for such acts obviously held a low standing in the community for it was believed that once they absorbed the sins, they were doomed to carry them around for the rest of their lives on earth.

We have to wonder what circumstances drove a person to accept a job as a town’s official sin eater. The payment was but a half-shilling, or no more than a couple dollars in today’s currency. And for that the sin eater suffered a dark social stigma that hovered over their heads like the dark raincloud perpetually over the Little Abner comic character Joe Btfsplk.

Since a scant meal was involved, we have to assume that it was intense poverty that drove men to assume the job of being the town sin eater. It was said that in its time, every town had a sin eater available to visit the dead and participate in this macabre ceremony.

As the sins allegedly accumulated in each sin eater, the people of every town believed this person became more and more horrible as time passed. Sin eaters never had an affiliation with a church, and willfully carried the sins of the dead for the rest of their natural lives. We have to wonder how they attempted to absolve so much sin, or if they willingly chose to accept an eternity in hell in exchange for taking on the profession they chose.

Of course, the sin eaters may have simply written off the church warnings of hell and damnation as poppy-cock, which it probably is.

The belief and practice of sin eating has faded since the end of the Eighteenth Century, which is probably a good thing. Yet the strange practice of holding wakes and huge meals at the time of a death continues on. Is this in some way related to that old tradition?