1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Sin-eater

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SIN-EATER, a man who for trifling payment was believed to take upon himself, by means of food and drink, the sins of a deceased person. The custom was once common in many parts of England and in the highlands of Scotland, and survived until recent years in Wales and the counties of Shropshire and Herefordshire. Usually each village had its official sin-eater to whom notice was given as soon as a death occurred. He at once went to the house, and there, a stool being brought, he sat down in front of the door. A groat, a crust of bread and a bowl of ale were handed him, and after he had eaten and drunk he rose and pronounced the ease and rest of the dead person, for whom he thus pawned his own soul. The earlier form seems to have been more realistic, the sin-eater being taken into the death-chamber, and, a piece of bread and possibly cheese having been placed on the breast of the corpse by a relative, usually a woman, it was afterwards handed to the sin-eater, who ate it in the presence of the dead. He was then handed his fee, and at once hustled and thrust out of the house amid execrations, and a shower of sticks, cinders or whatever other missiles were handy. The custom of sin-eating is generally supposed to be derived from the scapegoat (q.v.) in Leviticus xvi. 21, 22. A symbolic survival of it was witnessed as recently as 1893 at Market Drayton, Shropshire. After a preliminary service had been held over the coffin in the house, a woman poured out a glass of wine for each bearer and handed it to him across the coffin with a “ funeral biscuit.” In Upper Bavaria sin-eating still survives: a corpse cake is placed on the breast of the dead and then eaten by the nearest relative, while in the Balkan peninsula a small bread image of the deceased is made and eaten by the survivors of the family. The Dutch doed-koecks or “ dead-cakes,” marked with the initials of the deceased, introduced into America in the 17th century, were long given to the attendants at funerals in old New York. The “ burial-cakes ” which are still made in parts of rural England, for example Lincolnshire and Cumberland, are almost certainly a relic of sin-eating.