Much like the living, the dead have their own problems.
If you subscribe to the philosophy of many paranormal hobbyists, you might believe that the dead are trapped between two worlds, caught in vortices, forced to haunt a location, or are bound to the Earthly realm by unfinished business. No matter how you look at it, being dead is plagued by a myriad of complications. Perhaps this is the reason for the existence of countless customs surrounding death and burial in both the ancient and modern world. No practice is designed to take the burden off the recently deceased quite like the legend of the sin-eater.
The tradition of the sin-eater, at least identifying such an entity by name, originates in southern England. It was in this region that the legend became an accepted custom. The sin-eater was selected (or possibly self-appointed) from the most detestable in the community. An ugly, decrepit, wretch, this most base of humanity was often from society’s lowest class. Regardless of their outward appearance, the sin-eater performed a vital function. Theirs was an unholy task, the cause of horror for civilized society. Like so many others throughout the ages, the talents of damned are often times in high demand. Everyone is willing to pay for a service that in its very nature is unspeakable.
Upon the death of a person of prestige, the sin-eater would make an appearance outside the home of the recent dead. As the body, or casket, was carried out of the home, the procession would stop to pay homage to the sin-eater. Members of the departed’s family would pass bread, a wooden bowl of beer, and sixpence over the corpse and into the hands of the waiting sin-eater. The sin-eater would physically take the food and spiritually impart upon himself the sins of the dead person. The sin-eater was said to speak an incantation over the body before consuming the offering. Once the ritual was completed, there was no more need for the family to worry about any evil committed by the recently deceased. The sin-eater would then slip away, growing more detestable, with every set of sins devoured.
Other accounts of the activities of the sin-eater describe more intimate interaction with the dead. Traditions exist that describe the sin-eater being summonsed to a home after a death. Those in the home set a plate of salt on the chest of the departed. On top of the salt, a loaf of bread was placed alongside a flagon of ale. The sin-eater whispered over the meal and then consumed it in the presence of the family. Unburdened by their carnal transgressions, the dead could now enter the kingdom of Heaven. Once paid, the sin-eater disappeared into the countryside.
Welsh lore suggests that not only did the sin-eater take the indiscretions of the dead into themselves, they also prevented the dead from becoming the undead. It was said that with the deceased’s sins absorbed by the sin-eater, they had no reason to rise from the grave and wander the Earth in discontent. Forgiven, and resting peacefully, they could remain in the grave to the ease of all those left behind. Fear of the wandering dead has long plagued most every civilization.
It is worth mentioning, that in a time when the church held a monopoly on the forgiveness of sins, such customs would be looked upon as heathenism. The sin-eater would be forced to conceal their identity from church authorities or surely be executed. This unransomable soul would wander the wilderness, much like its Biblical scapegoat counterpart. The sin-eater was never seen unless called upon for his or her services. Those who were found to deal with the sin-eater would likely fair no better in a pious society, which is one of the reasons substantive documentation of the existence of such activities is rare. Nevertheless, the sin-eater existed, and their power held sway over those who thought their loved ones damned. Did they truly save any souls, or did they simply feast upon the naiveté of the desperate? Such is the question about many practioners of the paranormal.