Sin Eaters were believed to be able to receive the sin of the deceased.
From the 1600’s to the early 1900’s in the British Isles Sin Eaters were paid to attend a funeral and eat bread that was placed on the deceased and then ingest the person’s sins. Immigrants carried this practice to America and it is believed to have continued until the 1930s in Appalachia. The question one might ask is why?
The Catholic Church had taught the people that sin was absolved after a person confessed and asked for forgiveness. If someone died before having the opportunity to confess his/her sins, the family hired a Sin Eater to accept the deceased’s sins. However, the Catholic Church called these people (both those who did the hiring and the Sin Eater) heretics and blasphemers. The crime of sin eating was punishable by death. The practice comforted the living and it grew to include those whose deaths were not sudden. It also continued because it was believed that the Sin Eaters prevented souls from lingering on earth as ghosts.
Sin Eaters were useful society outcasts. No one would associate with them and they lived outside the villages. People believed they worked for Satan. After all, they willingly accepted the sins of many so they were overflowing with sin.
We are approaching Halloween and remember that people wore masks at this time so evil spirits wouldn’t recognize them or maybe be scared away. People also gave treats to those who promised to pray for a family’s deceased loved ones on Beggar’s Night. Going to heaven was very important to the people. I’m not sure how many people are concerned with that today.