In our secular-minded times it is hard to imagine that there could even be the need for a burial ritual that involved a designated eater of sins. But it did happen, both anciently and more recently, although it is a custom mostly known of in Shropshire, Hereford and the Welsh Marches. Shropshire writer Mary Webb (1881-1927) whose novels are set in the rural lead-mining communities around the Long Mynd and Stiperstones, gave an account of it in Precious Bane. You’ll find the extract at the end of my earlier post In which the Farrells go to Ratlinghope to visit Shropshire’s last sin eater
But to give you the gist, the sin eater played a crucial part in the burial service. A ritual meal – usually bread and ale – was passed over the coffin of the deceased for the sin eater to eat. In this way, the dead person’s spirit was absolved of all wrong-doing and could depart in peace. The people prepared to take on this role might be local wise folk, exorcists, or poor people outcast from the community by some misfortune. As time went on, it was often the last-mentioned who performed the act in order to have a decent meal. A harrowing thought on many fronts.
However, the man who has the distinction of being Shropshire’s last known sin eater, was not a poor man, but a sheep farmer whose family had farmed in the vicinity of Ratlinghope for generations. He in fact chose to revive the custom, and when you read the inscriptions set around his very striking memorial in Ratlinghope churchyard, you begin to understand why. Between 1862 and 1870, Richard and Ann Munslow lost four of their children. And so it is thought that Richard took on sin eating in response to this loss and as an expression of compassion. On a happier note, he and Ann did have two more children who outlived them. Richard died in 1906, his family grave set in the most peaceful of spots and in sight of the Long Mynd where he held the sheep grazing.
copyright 2022 Tish Farrell