Forgive us our trespasses until you puke.
A martyr’s work is never easy, but throw eternal damnation and social rejection into the mix and the vocation becomes near impossible. Nobody knew this better than the Sin Eater, a spiritual healer who operated in England, Scotland, and Wales from the Middle Ages all the way up to the early 1900s.
To earn a living, a Sin Eater had to perform a ritual that’s beyond macabre: He had to eat a piece of sin-soaked bread off the chest of a dying person. Usually, the Sin Eater performed this ceremony under the watchful eyes of the family, who prayed and drank a flagon of ale while he did the dirty work. People back then believed the bread would soak up all the earthly trespasses that a person had committed during their life, allowing them a greater chance of getting into Heaven.
But by swallowing the bread, the Sin Eater was not only absolving the sins of the departed, he was also absorbing them. This meant that a Sin Eater became literally more damned with every freelance gig he took, sulking off into the countryside after his bedeviled meal, hated and feared more and more with every funeral he worked.
To make matters worse, looking a Sin Eater in the eye meant risking a curse on you and yours (interestingly enough, this was the basis for the truly terrible 2007 movie, The Last Sin Eater.) So if you ever feel down on yourself again, just imagine not making human eye contact ever again in your life.
A Sin Eater served a dual purpose: he saved the departed from hell, but also prevented them from wandering the Earth as ghosts. In other words, he performed a service for both the living and the dead, which is a pretty big client base. Considering that, it’s even more outrageous that he got paid squat to do it: about half a shilling per job, which is the equivalent of a couple dollars by today’s standards.
Imagine! Eternal damnation, and not even a minimum wage salary to show for it. There was, however, a free meal in the mix — and what’s a few more sins on the old bar tab when you haven’t eaten in a week?
To top it all off, the Roman Catholic Church viewed Sin Eaters as competition — an obstacle to its efforts to establish a monopoly on the sin-absolving industry. That meant Sin Eaters had to avoid church authorities at all costs or face execution. (The church’s harsh rules also meant punishment for families who employed Sin Eaters, but enforcement of that was near impossible.)
Of course, all the hazards that the job entailed beg the question — who among us would choose such a thankless gig? As you may have gleaned by now, the task fell to those without much of a choice: the most reviled, destitute, lowest-possible class of human. Subhuman, when you consider their very presence connoted evil incarnate. Social outcasts, so hopeless that no amount of repentance could pave a path to salvation.
And you thought your job sucked.