A sin-eater is a traditional type of spiritual healer who uses a ritual to cleanse the dying of their sins. The sin-eater absorbs the sins of the people he or she serves and typically works for a fee. As the sins are usually consumed through food and drink, the sin-eater also gains a meal through the transaction. Sin-eaters are often outcasts, as the work may be considered unsavory and is usually thought to lead to an afterlife in hell due to carrying the unabsolved sins of others. The Roman Catholic Church regularly excommunicated sin-eaters when they were more common, not only because of the excessive sins they carried, but also because they infringed upon the territory of priests, who are supposed to administer Last Rites to the dying according to Church Doctrine.
The sin-eater saves the dying not only from hell, but also from wandering the earth as a ghost – thereby performing a service for the living as well. In some traditions, sin-eaters perform their work for the moribund, while in others, the ritual takes place at the funeral. The sin-eater is usually associated with the British Isles, but there are analogous customs in other cultures as well.
A sin-eater typically consumes bread as part of the ritual of taking on the dying person’s sins. He or she may also eat salt or drink water or ale. Sometimes, special breads are baked for the purpose of the sin-eating ritual, perhaps featuring the initials or image of the deceased. The meal is sometimes passed over the dead or dying body or placed on its breast to symbolize its absorption of the person’s sins. The sin-eater may also recite a special prayer.
Some cultures have customs that are similar to sin-eating and may have evolved from more traditional forms of the ritual. Instead of a designated, outcast sin-eater serving a village, for example, the deceased’s nearest relatives may perform the service, as was once traditional in Bavaria and the Balkan Peninsula. In the Netherlands and some parts of England, ritual baked goods were given to the attendants or pallbearers at a funeral. This latter tradition lived on for a time in New York. Today, the custom of the sin-eater has largely died out, though it is often referenced in popular culture.