Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Festival Of Fear: Day 21: True Story Tuesday: Sin Eaters

Do you believe in judgment after death? While superstition still exists today, there used to be a time when it would define the way people carry out rituals, such as the death of a loved one.

In 19th century England and Scotland there existed a very strange occupation. After the death of a loved one, relatives could hire a “sin-eater” to come and cleanse the soul of the recently departed. To do so, the sin-eater would be given a small meal, consisting of bread and a glass of wine or ale; the body would be laid out and the wine would have to be literally handed over the corpse (or coffin) and the bread waved over the deceased person, or even placed on their chest. It was believed that in doing this that the sins of the dead were absorbed into the food and drink. After saying a quick prayer, which traditionally went something like this, “I give easement and rest now to thee, dear man. Come not down the lanes or in our meadows. And for they peace I pawn my own soul. Amen.” It was also believed that if a person died suddenly their soul would be left behind to wander the physical plane—or, in other words, haunt the houses and countryside. Hiring a sin-eater would guarantee that the departed soul leaves in peace, and carries over to the other side. After reciting the speech, the sin-eater would consume the bread and wine, and it was believed that in doing so they took on the sins of the dead, therefore absolving them.

Unfortunately, little is known about sin-eaters as far as specifics in location and time period. The tradition is thought to have taken place through the 18th and 19th century in England and Scotland. The poor and hungry were usually the ones who would volunteer for the act, as it came with a meal and a little money. However, it did make them an outcast from society and ostracized from the church. Sin-eaters would be treated as if diseased or unclean, and were only called upon at the time of a person’s death.

The last known sin-eater, Richard Munslow, died in 1906 and was buried in Ratlinghope, England.

The strange and macabre tradition of sin-eating has had little recognition in popular culture, but one episode of Night Gallery showcases the funeral rite and the terrible psychology that can come along with it. The episode, called, “The Sins of Our Fathers”, stars Barbara Steele as a grieving wife, desperate to find a sin-eater to send her husband’s soul to heaven. The 2003 film, The Order, stars Heath Ledger as a priest researching the ghastly ritual.

A favorite artist of mine from Herefordshire, England works under the name Sin Eater; you can see some of his gorgeous artwork here.

For some, hiring a sin-eater was a way to find peace after the death of a loved one, for others it was a source of disgust and repulsion. Either way, the tradition did not survive to see the 21st century, and so it remains in history a strange and fascinating ritual.

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