Sin Eaters Had to Work Clandestinely
The church has long had a firm grip on what it believes to be divine truth, whether that truth is biblical or not. Anyone who practiced a doctrine or ritual outside of the church’s purview was at best excommunicated, which meant that the guilty were banished from the church and would undoubtedly spend eternity in hell. At worst, they were tortured and killed. As you might imagine, sin eating wasn’t a practice advocated by the church. After all, it might have taken away money to be earned by selling indulgences! Anyone caught engaging in sin-eating could be harshly punished, so communities that adhered to the practice had to do so clandestinely.
That said, the ritual of sin eating was immensely important; without it, the dearly departed ran the risk of not being holy enough to enter heaven. As soon as someone was in the throes of death, the piece of bread would be placed on his or her chest. Once death had occurred, someone would run through the village to find the sin eater. This task alone could not be an easy job, as the sin eater was not allowed to look anyone in the eye, at the risk of forcing eternal damnation on whoever should behold him or her.
When the sin eater was brought to the home of the deceased, a stool would be brought out for him or her to sit on while eating the cursed meal. The “meal” might consist of nothing more than an old crust of bread. Once it was consumed, he or she would usually be paid (half a shilling, just a few dollars in today’s money, was the going rate) before being chased off, sometimes with yelling, sometimes with bricks or stones. Care had to be taken if a church minister was nearby, as the threat of execution always hung over the heads of those who engaged in the sin eating culture.
So, were the ultimate social pariahs. The people believed that looking at them would lead to damnation, and they had absorbed so many sins that they would never be able to enter heaven. One might think that someone with that cursed a life might look to the church for a chance at, well, anything but that experience. Go to confession, buy an indulgence, anything that the church prescribed for one’s sins to be absolved. Unfortunately, sin eaters knew that coming into any contact with church authorities would mean certain execution. There was no way out.
As such, sin eaters were basically a sub-human species. They performed the ultimate service for the community, possibly the most important job there was, and were hated for it. Only the most destitute of all people would ever sign up for such a role, people who may have already thought of themselves as condemned for eternity for some sin that they had committed in the past which could never be absolved. They really were screwed.