Up until the late 19th century various villages throughout England maintained a curious ilk of beggar known as a sin-eater. These men would be summoned, naturally by the lure of a handsome pay cheque, to eat bread, partake of alcohol and recite ritual over a fresh corpse, in the belief that by these means the sin-eater would take into his body the sins of those who had died without chance to repent. The sin-eater would receive his pay and the deceased would enjoy an easy ascension to the heavens.
An account of Richard Munslow (d.1906), the last sin-eater of England, reads thus:
By eating bread and drinking ale, and by making a short speech at the graveside, the sin-eater took upon themselves the sins of the deceased. The speech was written as: “I give easement and rest now to thee, dear man. Come not down the lanes or in our meadows. And for thy peace I pawn my own soul. Amen.
In Funeral Customs (1926) Bertram S. Puckle tells of a Welsh sin-eater in 1825 who, “Abhorred by the superstitious villagers as a thing unclean … cut himself off from all social intercourse with his fellow creatures … he lived as a rule in a remote place by himself, and those who chanced to meet him avoided him as they would a leper. This unfortunate was held to be the associate of evil spirits, and given to witchcraft, incantations and unholy practices; only when a death took place did they seek him out, and when his purpose was accomplished they burned the wooden bowl and platter from which he had eaten the food handed across, or placed on the corpse for his consumption.”
Unapproved of by the church the practice faded out towards the end of the 19th century.