The Appalachian culture is rich in history and custom. Many beliefs and traditions, such as snake-handling Christians, are often viewed as strange by the mainstream. When I started researching an ancient practice I had heard about, I was surprised to find that Sin-Eating had a not-so-distant history in Europe and right here in Appalachia. The Sin-Eater was a societal outcast and would be summoned upon the death of a loved one, to come wearing their dark cloak and hood and cloak and eat a meal that had been placed upon the corpse, usually reciting whispered lines, thus absolving the deceased of all their worldly sins, thereby affording them passage into heaven rather than being damned to wander the earth.
Throughout history many professions have risen from death rituals, including the undertakers and morticians of today. In days of old, professional mourners were hired to wail and lament the passing of a family member, while others were hired to sit with the dead until the time of burial. While sin-eaters were paid for their services, it was a very small amount of money. There was a dark stigma attached to the sin-eaters, who were believed to carry the sins they ate along with them, the sum of which made them unclean and evil in the eyes of their neighbors who shunned them. The question has been put forth of who eats the sin-eaters' sins. It was commonly believed that for voluntarily taken the sins of others upon them, the sin-eater was damned to eternal life in hell.
Tracing its origins to ancient Egypt and Greece, the practice of sin-eating also stems from the Catholic rite of absolution, the forgiveness of sins by a priest as near the time of death as possible. In order for those who died unexpectedly to be absolved, sin-eaters became common in Wales and Ireland in the 18th and 19th century, with immigrants bringing the practice with them to the mountains of Appalachia.
While the ritual of sin-eating varied by region, the sin-eater usually lived in a remote area away from others. The practice was somewhat taboo, and few accounts survived. In Appalachia, the sin-eater seemed to be an anonymous member of the community, his identity secret while he lived a regular life in his community. The sin-eater would be summoned upon the death of a loved one, and would enter the home, where the family would have prepared a meal and placed it on the chest of the corpse, or passed it over the body. Once the food was eaten and the sin-eater would say something to the effect of, “I give easement now to thee…and for they earthly sins dear woman, I pawn my own soul.” His job done, the sin-eater left without saying another word, only to appear again when he was summoned.
The practice seems to have died out around the turn of the 20th century in Europe, though a handful of reports continued through the 1930s. In America, tales of sin-eating persisted in North Carolina, West Virginia, and Virginia were claimed to occur through the 1950s, with alleged accounts occurring in remote areas within the last decade, although these reports have not been validated.
An episode of Rod Serling’s Night Gallery, titled ‘Sins of the Fathers’ featured a sin-eater. The 2003 movie The Order, Heath Ledger plays a priest who is a sort of sin-eater and can be found on Hulu. Francine Rivers’ 1996 book The Last Sin Eater was adapted into a film in 2007. While not the best movie ever made, it tells the story of a community of second generation Welsh immigrants living in the Appalachian mountains and a dark secret they share. It is said to portray the ritual of sin-eating closely to what actually occurred in the mountains long ago.
Overlook the foreign language dubbed over the dialogue and check out the ritual:
Like many old traditions, sin-eating seems to have died out in Europe and Appalachia, but whispering here and there allude to the possibility of sin-eating still being practiced in remote areas of the mountains. If anyone has a first or second-hand account of sin-eating, please contact us!
Links of interest:
Funeral Customs - includes section on sin-eating
Watch The Last Sin Eater - complete movie on Youtube