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Repent - or at least get someone else to do it for you: Sin-eaters

01:00 Wed 24th Apr 2002 |

Q. Who, what and how

A. A sin-eater was someone hired to absorb the sins of recently departed souls and thereby spare them the discomforts of Purgatory - or even Eternal Damnation, if they'd been really wicked. Quite often a way for the poor of the parish to earn a couple of bob, the sin-eater - or perhaps for period flavour we should call them sinne-eaters - would eat food prepared by the deceased person's family in the vicinity of the corpse or even off the body itself. In doing so they would absorb the sins and allow the soul to take the Purgatory Relief Road straight to Paradise.

Q. And when

A. The practice continued in Britain into the 19th century, but was at its height in the 16th and 17th centuries.

Q. Where

A. It was common throughout Europe and made its way to the American colonies, where it thrived in some of the further flung communities into the 20th century. One 1688 source tells us of the popularity of sin-eating in Herefordshire: 'There was an old custome at funeralls to hire poor people who were to take upon them all the sinnes of the deceased...A corpse was brought out of the house...a loafe of bread was brought out and delivered to the sinne-eater over the corps, as also a mazer-bowl full of beer, which he was to drink up, and sixpence of money, in consideration whereof he took upon him all the sinnes of the defunct, and freed him from walking after they were dead.'

Q. Did it work

A. How do we know Still, the Church was convinced, and for a time actually recommended that no more than one third of one's estate should be left to relatives and other beneficiaries, with the rest being given to the parish as 'guilt money'.

Q. A related industry to that of the hired mourner, then

A. Indeed. In fact hired mourning, the work of the so-called 'fee-grief', was a major growth industry at one time. Paid for with 'sinne money', that is money left by the deceased to be disposed of in ways that might smooth the passage of his or her immortal soul to Heaven, the mourners would not only weep and wail on cue, they would also atone for the dead person's sins by proxy.

Q. Anything else

A. There are a couple of books currently available that deal with sin-eating in one way or another. Alice Thomas Ellis's The Sin Eater is set in Wales, while The Last Sin Eater by Francine Rivers is set in 1850s Appalachia. It's the story of a community haunted by its past sins and committed to its myth of a human sin-eater.

There's a film due for release in 2003 called - you've guessed it - The Sin Eater, directed by Brian Helgeland and starring�Heath Ledger and�Shannon Sossamon. The premise here is that sin-eaters were an order of priests who did the deed rather than some old boy from the village. Anyway, the story runs that the corpse of the French ambassador to the USA is found covered in religious tracts written in the Aramaic language - which was the old language of Palestine and the one that Jesus in thought to have spoken. It turns out, from the evidence of these texts, that the murder may have been committed by some ancient Christian sect of sin-eaters. And so on into dark Hollywood realms...Sounds fun.

See also the answerbank articles on barbi-tonsoribus and the Yiddish language

For more on Phrases & Sayings click here

By Simon Smith

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