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What Is a Sin-Eater?

A sin-eater is a spiritual healer who is hired for the purpose of cleansing a dying person of his or her sins. A heavy and difficult job—usually taken by outcasts who had no other means of employment—it also carried the risk of excommunication. The Roman Catholic Church believed that sin-eaters carried far too much sin to be part of “the fold” and also thought them to be the competitors of priests, whose “Last Rites” were supposed to be the only accepted form of erasing a person’s sins before death. Of course, none of this was as bad as the fear of being damned to hell, due to the weight of carrying unabsolved sins.

Sin-eaters, though, could have been seen as performing an act of mercy for the dying, saving them from hell or the fate of wandering around as a ghost.

The sin-eaters performed the ritual of taking the bread, water or ale of a dying man. In some cases a special bread was prepared, which carried the image or the initials of the person. The bread may have also been placed on the man’s chest, or passed over him to “absorb” the sins. Very often the sin-eater would say a particular prayer or chant.

The sin-eaters proliferated in some European cultures, namely the British Isles, the Netherlands, Bavaria, and the Balkan Peninsula. In some cultures the task was not done by an outcast but by pallbearers, relatives, or attendants at the funeral. The practice has long stopped, though it is often referred to in books, movies and popular culture.

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