Our little bit of history today comes from the depths of my Evernote where I had saved an article by Meg Favreau on Table Matters about the custom of funeral cakes, and sin eaters. This reminded me of i09’s article “The Weird but True History of Sin Eaters” and then the BBC article about how the grave of Richard Munslow, the last known sin eater in the UK, had been recently (2010) restored.
It’s a kind of hapless research I have in my Evernote; collections of articles and links on a subject growing larger over years, never collated. Sin eaters would become outcasts, tainted in the public eye by the sins they had taken from the recently deceased. The custom usually includes eating and drinking bread and wine that had been passed over the dead. The sin eater was paid for their trouble, that of carrying the sins for the rest of their days, but also shunned.
The custom is sometimes tied to Leviticus, and thought to be a mutated practice of scapegoating, where humans and not goats are given the transgressions and cast out.
This custom alludes (methinkes) something to the Scape-goate in ye old Lawe. Leviticus, cap. xvi, verse 21, 22. “And Aaron shall lay both his hands on the head of the live goate and confesse over him all ye iniquities of the children of Israel, and all their transgressions in all their sins, putting them upon the head of the goat, and shall send him away by the hand of a fitt man into the wilderness. And the goat shall bear upon him all their iniquities, unto the land no inhabited: and he shall let the goat goe unto the wilderness.”
-Hartland, E.S. (1892) “The Sin-Eater.” Folklore. 3(2); 145-157.
But the practices of making one person a sacrifice for a whole community is very common. Wikipedia’s scapegoat discusses the Greek custom of casting out a crippled member of the community, especially when facing an immanent threat. Cultures all over the world have had traditions of sacrifice deep in their past, and though most of the world now shuns ritual killings, the tradition of sacrifice continues on in narrative, worship, and even politics.
Names for things and rituals may change a little, but I’m not really sure there ever will be a last sin-eater.