Remembering Shropshire’s Last Sin Eater

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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.

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The Square Odds #7

copyright 2022 Tish Farrell


27 thoughts on “Remembering Shropshire’s Last Sin Eater

  1. so very odd, I am sure I was read something recently or maybe someone was telling me that there’s a culture where they ate a part of the deceased for exactly the same reason.

  2. I am fascinated by your tribute & story about Richard, the Sin Eater. The idea & practice reminds me some of the death anniversary practices in various Asian countries of offering food for the deceased.

    1. It’s fascinating to find close similarities in cultures around the world. And through time too. Your comment has reminded me of food offerings found in prehistoric and ancient tombs all around the globe. Also in our own time, the day of the dead celebrations in South American cultures which centre around feasting.

  3. such an interesting story Tish and a great view from the final resting place p.s. at my last visit to the Mynd I was literally bowled over by a hungry sheep who wished to partake of my picnic – perhaps a descendant of Munslow’s flock – nice to think it was eating my sins too even before death!

    1. Love that yarn, Laura, the notion of descendants of Munslow’s flock performing ritual duties. Those Mynd sheep are certainly very pushy characters. I remember, as a child, being bullied for my wine gums.

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