Sin Eating was a strange ritual largely practiced by the destitute for money to take on the sins of the rich in the belief that the rich would then be taken into heaven after being rendered sinless. The practice involved standing over the corpse of the deceased and then imbibing beer or wine and eating bread, symbolically taking in the sins of the deceased and making them one’s own. The practice was discontinued in 1906 with the death of the last sin eater.
Sin Eating wasn’t simply for those who refused to confess or didn’t have time to atone for their sins. Many good people died without receiving the opportunity to confess their sins, a practice that was believed to put someone’s soul at risk. But with a sin eater around, these terrors were often appeased with a few coins and a simple ritual. The practice was, however, considered similar to the selling of indulgences by the church in the fifteenth century. And yet even as the practice gained in popularity, sin eaters were difficult to find outside of a small area outside of where the last of the sin eaters would eventually be laid to rest.
The final sin eater’s name was Richard Munslow and he was laid to rest in 1906. Unlike his predecessors, Mr. Munslow was not a poor man by any means, but rather a rich landowner and well established farmer. He performed the service from an early age until his death in North Wales despite being frowned upon by the local vicar. Mr. Munslow’s grave fell into disrepair over the years and only recently was a campaign by Reverend Norman Morris to restore the cenotaph. The campaign called for a thousand pounds to be raised so it could be restored and displayed for visitors to see how the area played a significant role in the church’s history.
The practice of sin eating, aside from a few key figures and points of interest is not the subject of much scholarly historical scrutiny. As a result, much of the information available comes from folklore rather than official records. And unfortunately, many details of Mr. Munslow’s life have been left to the sands of time. Legends of the practice of sin eaters stated that the individuals were often as avoided as the heavily diseased or those associated with witchcraft or satanism. And yet as death came about the sin eater was a man they all wanted by their side. Only in the dead and bereaved did the sin eater find welcome. The food and drink the sin eater ate the sins of the dead on was then burned and the ashes cast away to ensure no living person would accidentally take on the sins of the dead and by doing so forfeit their life inadvertently.
The practice was largely considered to be a matter of superstition over an actual religious practice. And yet as with so many rituals, it found its way into religious history long after it ceased.