The Morbid Tradition of Sin Eating Was Every Bit as Terrifying as it Sounds

The Morbid Tradition of Sin Eating Was Every Bit as Terrifying as it Sounds

Trista - November 19, 2018

The Morbid Tradition of Sin Eating Was Every Bit as Terrifying as it Sounds
The Sin Eater by Tillinghast23. Deviant Art/elitereaders.

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.

The Morbid Tradition of Sin Eating Was Every Bit as Terrifying as it Sounds
Scene from Night of the Living Dead. Blogspot.

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.

The Morbid Tradition of Sin Eating Was Every Bit as Terrifying as it Sounds
A picture of a sin eating ceremony. Oriel Washington Gallery/omgfacts.

Sin Eaters Were the Ultimate Scapegoats

A scapegoat is essentially someone who, willingly or unwillingly, takes upon himself or herself the violent or otherwise sinful actions of another. The ultimate scapegoating act is that of sacrifice, in which sins are transmitted to an innocent animal, which is then ritually slaughtered. It can also occur through someone unfairly taking the blame for something that he or she did not do and being likewise punished. Sin eaters were the ultimate scapegoats, bringing upon themselves sins that they did not commit and the punishment for those sins, both in this world and the one to come.

Imagine a backed-up toilet that has been in that state for not weeks, not months, but years. Moreover, people keep using it, making its condition increasingly worse. That was pretty much the psychological state of the sin eater. He or she continually consumed the excrement of society, the people’s sins, and they just festered inside. His or her soul was believed to be so tarnished as to be beyond any redemption. Perhaps the only relief to be found was getting drunk at the end of the day with the small pittance that was earned from doing the vital task of eating sins.

The Morbid Tradition of Sin Eating Was Every Bit as Terrifying as it Sounds
A painting of a 19th century Scottish funeral called ‘A Highland Funeral’ by James Guthrie. omgfacts.

Still, without the sin eater to completely absolve the deceased of their sins, society simply would not function. People believed that not only did sin eaters enable the dearly departed to enter heaven, but they also prevented spirits from returning to earth as ghosts. After all, if their contented souls were able to reach heaven, they had no reason to wander the earth and haunt its inhabitants. The sin eater, however, would certainly return as a restless, wandering spirit. After all, he or she had absorbed the sins of so many people that entrance to heaven would indeed be denied.

There won’t be many more restless, wandering spirits of sin eaters roaming the earth for the time being, as the last known sin eater died in 1906. That person was Richard Munslow, and he ate the sins for the people of Shropshire in England. He was buried in all of the ignominies of a sin eater, but a century after his death, £1000 was raised to restore his gravesite and give him the recognition that he deserved for the sacrificial yet ill-informed service that he provided to his community.

The Reverend Norman Morris, who presided over the restoration, was pleased that Munslow was finally able to put his grave in “an excellent state of repair.” However, he also stated that he had no desire to reinstate the rather macabre ritual of sin eating. Though there is no official knowledge of the practice of eating sins today, there is no reason to believe that there is not a single community that practices it. Perhaps sin eating will resurface, or some other macabre, bizarre means of exculpating people of their sins.


Where did we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“Sin eater.” Wikipedia.

“The Last Sin Eater” by Francine Rivers. Tyndale House Publishers. 1998.

“Why Sin Eating Was Once The Worst Job In The World,” by Vincent Alocada. Elite Readers.

“History’s Worst Job: Village Sin Eater,” by Mariam Sharia. OMGFacts. Medium.Com. 2016.

“The Worst Freelance Gig in History was Being the Village Sin Eater,” by Natalie Zarrelli. Atlas Obscura. July 14, 2017.

“Last ‘sin eater’ celebrated with church service.” BBC. September 19, 2010.