Sin-Eating

Appears in

Oxford Companion to Food

Oxford Companion to Food

By Alan Davidson

Published 2014

  • About

Sin-Eating a curious practice by which a professional sin-eater was supposed to consume the sins of a person recently dead by consuming food before or at the funeral. Hone (1832) assembled evidence of this, largely pertaining to England but no doubt echoing similar customs elsewhere. His main English source, quoted both indirectly and directly, was John Aubrey (1626–97), from whom the two descriptions which follow derive.

Within the memory of our fathers, in Shropshire, in those villages adjoining to Wales, when a person died, there was notice given to an old ‘sire’ (for so they called him), who presently repaired to the place where the deceased lay, and stood before the door of the house, when some of the family came out and furnished him with a cricket (or stool), on which he sat down facing the door. Then they gave him a groat, which he put in his pocket; a crust of bread, which he ate; and a full bowl of ale, which he drank off at a draught. After this, he got up from the cricket, and pronounced, with a composed gesture, ‘the ease and rest of the soul departed, for which he would pawn his own soul.’

In the county of Hereford was an old custom at funerals to hire poor people, who were to take upon them sins of the party deceased. One of them (he was a long, lean, ugly, lamentable poor rascal), I remember, lived in a cottage on Rosse highway. The manner was, that when the corpse was brought out of the house, and laid on the bier, a loaf of bread was brought out, and delivered to the sin-eater, over the corpse, as also a mazard bowl, of maple, full of beer (which he was to drink up), and sixpence in money: in consideration whereof he took upon him, ipso facto, all the sins of the defunct, and freed him or her from walking after they were dead.