I have a sin-eating appointment at 3 today. It’s unusual to eat sin on a Monday, or any weekday really; Most sin-eating happens at the week-end when people are not in work. This is the first time I have eaten sin on a Monday. Not many people know about sin-eating and most would be horrified that this old custom is still practiced in the internet age. I have decided to write about my hobby because my anonymity is guaranteed by this blog and therefore my professional reputation will not be compromised.
I first found out about sin-eating when reading one of Alexander Cordell’s books. It might have been Rape of the Fair Country or Song of the Earth or the other one that I can’t think of now. Anyway one of the characters in the book had been away eating sin in Shropshire. That was when I first became aware of the custom. I was fifteen and curious and so started trawling through encyclopaedias for more information. You probably haven’t heard of it and so I will briefly explain what it’s all about.
When a person dies and the family and the deceased know that the late relative had led less than an innocent life they try to ensure that he or she still enters the Kingdom of Heaven by having all of their sins taken away. The belief is that if the dead person has food laid upon them and that food is eaten then the sins of the departed will pass to the mortal who has eaten the food.
I have lots of sins and only a few are my own. I started eating sin or sins seven years ago when I was 43. It had taken until then to find out all about the practice. I did some reading around the subject, visited Ratlinghope in Shropshire, visited Richard Munslow’s grave and became even more intrigued by the custom. During my thirties I became frustrated in my efforts to find out more about eating sin and it seemed that I had gone as far as I could. But there was always this feeling of intrigue and excitement about the custom that I knew I would have to satisfy and once I had turned forty I felt even more that I would like to not only discover the truth about eating sin but also, and these were very private thoughts, started to imagine what it would be like to eat the sins of another. I became aware that, when I thought about eating the sins of a deceased sinner, I became excited much as I am now and I know that this excitement will persist throughout the day until I perform mu duties at 3 pm.
How I finally made contact with the sin-eating community is quite a story in itself. I finally plucked up enough courage to walk straight into a funeral director’s premises and asked if he knew anything about sin-eating. This was in my home town and I made some ridiculous excuse about needing to know for a history project I was completing. Anyway, he knew nothing of the practice but assured me that he would ask around. I heard nothing from him. Then I started to visit Shropshire where I could genuinely conduct some research. I asked around all of the funeral directors I came across but had no luck. Some had heard of the custom but were unaware of it happening today. Some believed it had died out when Richard Munslow died. I wondered if anyone ate his sins or if he had gone to hell taking with him the thousands of sins of the people that he had eaten from. I asked the local Christian clergy who told me that eating sin was a pointless exercise because if a dying person repents his or her sins before they die then they are forgiven all their sins and will go to Heaven. That was the good thing about Christianity. Richard was buried in Ratlinghope church and must have repented before he died.
I was getting nowhere. Perhaps the custom had died out. Perhaps I could revive it. How would I go about that? As I developed my career, always, at the back of my mind, was the question of sin-eating. By the time I had celebrated my forty-second birthday I was determined that, if I couldn’t find a sin-eater who could teach me his craft, then I would just go ahead and revive the custom myself. I would sit in meetings with colleagues and fellow professionals and imagine eating their sins. I would try and guess who would have the most sins and who would have the least. Professional standards set by the Law Society were rigorously enforced to ensure that there was almost no chance of committing major misdemeanours with clients’ money. But what about the private lives that these people live? How many had had, or were having extra-marital affairs? Was that a sin? How many were abusing partners, or other family members or neighbours? Which ones were stealing from others? Who was the most sinful?
I was in Shropshire; In Telford. Walking through the town and wandering through its alleys. It was March 2002. The clouds were being thrown through the blue sky by a strong, steady wind from the north. The sun was bright and it threw shadows across the streets before being hidden behind one of the racing clouds. The bright spring sunshine was interrupted by brief periods of gloom before the sun once again shone down. When the sun disappeared the countryside was plunged back into winter; when it shone it was the start of a new year.
I found myself down one of the alleyways with the wind whistling around me. It was a dank dismal corridor between two tall buildings built in the 1600s. As I walked through the alley I noticed that, a few yards ahead, there was a shop with a pale light shining from its large window. I expected it to be a model railway shop, or a designer dress outlet. As I drew level with the weak light, the store revealed itself to be the home of a funeral director – Courtney Price & Co – Funeral Directors and Undertakers – anounced the copper scripted gold leaf sign that was above the door and the window. The door was black and shiny with a large highly polished brass letterbox that had the word LETTERS engraved on it. To the right of the letterbox was a large brass knob just as highly polished as the letterbox. At the top of the door were the numbers 13-14. The window to the right was almost the full height of the ground floor. It was divided into three panels with black window panes that ran vertically. The windows were veiled by thick net curtains that weren’t white but a dark cream. Half way up the window there was a shining brass curtain rail from which a red velvet curtain hung just touching the floor inside. A remarkable gas lamp was the source of the light that escaped into the narrow damp alleyway. I peered into the room and could make out a heavy red-wooded desk with a green captain’s chair that was upholstered in green leather. A green shaded brass banker’s light stood unlit on the desk. In front of the desk were two austere wheel-backed black mahogany chairs. Immediately behind the captain’s chair was a doorway that was hung with a dark red heavy curtain attached to the rail by large brass rings.
There was something about the shop that made me uneasy. I was nervous. I was excited. I couldn’t quite understand what was intimidating me and at the same time exciting me. Here I was in an old town, down an old alley in the middle of a spring day. I was composed and rational, yet something was urging me forward, pushing me towards the door. I felt a strange sensation overcoming me as I took in the scene in front of me. I could hear my heart beating faster and I took in gulps of air as I stood quite still.
I don’t know what it was that made me want to be on the other side of the door, but I found myself turning to the great brass doorknob. It made a metal grating noise but turned easily enough and a dull clunk signalled the latch had been pulled back. I pushed the door open and gingerly stepped into the office. The door closed by itself with another, heavier, and reassuring clunk. I took a minute to contemplate the contents of the room. To the left was a large fireplace holding a spitting and crackling wood fire that was surrounded by a highly polished black fireplace. The room was hot, but not unbearable, and it smelled of sickly sandalwood. Everything was highly polished and spotless. Somebody didn’t just clean this office, they laboured over it. For a few seconds I stood still. the only sound was the gentle hissing of the gas lamp and the occasional crackling of the fire. There was something unusual in that – strange as it seemed there was a sound missing, I should have been hearing something else though I couldn’t think what.
On the desk stood an old fashioned blotting pad that was encased in a black leather frame. In the right hand corner of the desk was a pen holder complete with black pen. The floor was made up of highly polished, shining dark wooden blocks with a large, dark red carpet that covered the area around the desk and chairs. The fireplace held a shining set of brass fire irons and above the fireplace hung a Victorian print that depicted the biblical parable of the Broad and Narrow Ways. A dark brown, heavy wooden frame housed the print.
Two roads – one narrow, one broad.
Everything seemed to be functional. The only decoration was the print and that was a depiction of how to lead a virtuous life and avoid hell. I liked the room. It was solid and unpretentious. It was inviting yet solemn. It wrapped itself around me and I felt at ease. It was the room that made me realise how hectic and superficial my life was. Here, in this room, was what life was all about.
Nobody came into the room though the sound of the door opening and closing would have surely alerted anyone of my arrival. I had the distinct feeling that somebody knew I was there, but was content to let me take in all there was to see and feel about the room. Perhaps he, it wouldn’t be a she, was standing behind the curtain. I turned towards the doorway hung with the heavy drape and called out, “hello?” The call seemed louder than I expected because of the stillness of the room. It was then that I knew what sound was missing. It was the sort of room that needed a loud tick-tock of a casement clock. That would have complemented perfectly the hissing of the lamp and the cracking of the fire. I made another attempt at making contact – this time deliberately raising my voice to a much louder “Hello?” After a few seconds of nothing, the sound of somebody walking came from behind the curtain. Slowly, a hand began to pull the curtain to the side, and into the room stepped Mr. Courtney Price – Undertaker.
Mr. Courtney Price was a short, thin little man who looked as if he needed ironing. He was in his late sixties and walked with a slight stoop. He was leaning forward as he shuffled rather than walked into the room, looking at me over the rim of his dark brown and hideously large spectacles. His stoop gave him the appearance of being continually off balance and he steadied himself against the wall with his left hand and came to a stop at the green captain’s chair. Because of his stoop, the only way in which he could see ahead was to look over his glasses. “Good Morning Sir”, he said through his thin, colourless lips. He had black hair that was long enough to reach the old fashioned turn-down collar that sat on top of his white shirt. His black suit was shiny in parts. His voice was quiet – just above a whisper, and the three words had a noticeable gap between them. He nodded his head as he spoke and he wore a frown that anticipated the news of a death. He understood.
“Good Morning” I replied in a cheerful way, deliberately smiling. He stared at me, and nodded. He had dandruff on the shoulders of his shiny suit. “I wonder if you can help me”, I continued. He semi-smiled and nodded again. “I am trying to find out about sin-eaters”. He simply looked at me. There was no change of expression, no raising of eyebrows, no puzzled frown. Usually mentioning sin-eaters provoked some kind of reaction. I’m sure the gas lamp hissed louder.
“What is it you would like to know?” he asked in his quiet and thin voice.
“Do you know anything about sin-eating?” I asked.
He nodded without looking at me, and a smile almost broke over his face. I was taken aback. I hadn’t expected this. He was supposed to be curious, shocked almost. He just smiled. I knew that something was about to happen. I knew that I was about to find some answers to questions that had needed answers for over twenty years. I blurted out the next question, feeling almost embarrassed. “Is it still practiced?” The little man raised his head and his eyes, peering over his glasses, met mine.
“Why do you want to know?” he whispered.
“I am curious”.
“But you can find out all you want to know from books” he said, in a slightly louder voice. His eyes were fixed on mine.
After a few seconds he said in a half-whisper; “Enter ye in at the strait gate: for wide is the gate, and broad is the way, that leadeth to destruction, and many there be which go in thereat:” and then, closing his eyes and gently shaking his head he added “Matthew 7:13”. He seemed to be contemplating something for a few seconds and then he opened his eyes and looked back at me.
I was excited. I knew I could trust this anachronism of a man. I had nothing to lose. Over twenty years of frustration and fascination came to a head. ‘I have nothing to lose’ I told myself. ‘I can just walk away and never have to explain myself’, I thought. And out it came. “I want to be one” I said. The fire crackled and the lamp hissed. The little man’s eyes left mine and found the framed poster of the broad and narrow way above the fireplace. He swivelled the chair towards him, and sat in it and then swung it around until he faced me and then motioned with his thin hands for me to take a seat in one of the black wheel-backed chairs. I sat down, and we looked at each other. A few seconds passed before he spoke.
“There is not much call for it these days” he said as he looked into the fire”.
“So you still get requests for it?”
There was a pause. He was contemplating his answer very carefully.
“There are some” – another pause – “clients who insist on keeping the old traditions alive” he whispered, gently nodding his head as he spoke. “Old families with a tradition of using the service. We still occasionally have requests for a Sin-Eater to attend the deceased – we have always offered the service. And we were established in 1867”. He looked up at me over the rims of his spectacles.
“What is your name?” he asked.
“David – David Saul” I replied.
“Well Mr. Saul, tell me what you would like to know about eating sin”.
“How often does it happen – I mean how often do you get requests for a sin-eater” I asked rather too eagerly. I was a novice in the world of undertaking.
Mr. Price looked at me with a face that bore no expression. His eyes didn’t move from mine and he didn’t blink. “You must remember Mr. Saul, that what we are dealing with here are emotions – high emotions. What our clients want is reassurance. Reassurance that, even though the Christian scripts are quite clear that repenting sin even at the last hour will ensure that the soul enters into the kingdom of heaven. Sin-eating is, for our clients, an extra form of insurance”.
“I see” I replied. “But how often does it occur?”
“We have around four requests every year. As I said, usually from families with a long tradition of using this service. Books will tell you that the practice died out when Richard Munslow died in 1906”. He paused. “You will find him buried in Ratlinghope church – the grave is quite unusual”.
Outside the skies had grown darker and it had started to rain. I asked another question.
“But why, if the church teaches that even at the last moment, if someone repents then their soul will be saved, do people still need the ‘insurance’ of the services of a sin-eater. Surely the clergy can make this point.”
Again a pause. Again an emotionless face stared at me.
“Car Accidents” uttered the undertaker.
“Car Accidents?” I repeated.
“Yes –Fatal Car Accidents”. He emphasised the word fatal. “People who have fatal car accidents have no time to confess their sins as their death is instant. And the fatalities are usually young people who have – sinned. There are also, of course, other sudden death scenarios. But the roads around here are overcrowded and dangerously winding – they were designed for horse and carts and not cars that can travel at over 100 miles per hour.”
I began to see why this conversation was taking place at all.
“Do you already have a sin-eater?” I asked.
“Yes. Yes we do”
“And so I don’t suppose you would need another?”
“There is always the need for additional personnel”
“Who is your current sin-eater?”
There was another pause. More staring into my eyes. I began to feel uncomfortable.
“Mr. Saul, you have to remember that what we are dealing with here is an exceptionally personal service. It is a service that stands ready to be ridiculed and its practitioners condemned as heathens. We take pride that the service we offer can be taken in strictest confidence. We serve all of society Mr. Saul – and cater for the bereavement needs of all strata of society. Some of our clients are of the highest standing not only in society but also in – in – the church. I fear I may have already told you too much”.
I said nothing. His eyes moved from mine to the fire. I sat quietly. I didn’t want to do anything that would jeopardise my chance of entering this strange surreal world. Eventually he spoke.
“Why exactly do you want to become a sin-eater Mr. Saul”?
I hesitated and thought carefully. I could try and answer as he would want me to answer if only I knew what he wanted to hear. I knew that this was something that I wanted to do – but couldn’t for the life of me think of a rational reason why I wanted to eat food of a dead body that would, in most cases, be severely and horribly disfigured. I spoke the truth.
“I find the whole concept incredibly exciting” I eventually answered.
Again a pause. Again the lamp hissed and the fire continued to crackle.
“Exciting? What is it about the practice that you find exciting Mr. Saul”?
Again I hesitated – then spoke from my heart. I didn’t have to think – it just all came out.
“It’s as if I would be entering into a highly confidential and secretive society that is engaged in something that nobody can prove or disprove. I want to be part of that. I want to be the guarantor of the deceased gaining entry to heaven”. I paused. Mr. Price stared into the fire, the glow of which was reflected in his gaunt face, parts of which were now dancing with the reflections of the flames. “I live a staid and respectful life. I have a highly respected reputation in a profession that is nearly as old as yours. I have a stable family life, am a good husband and play my part in promoting a charitable society. In short I have everything I want”. I paused again. “In short I want to be part of something that is not ‘normal’ or routine. If I’m honest I want a dark side to my life”.
Mr Price smiled. He knew that he had just recruited another sin-eater.