A corpse is laid out on a table, an abundance of food surrounding it. The house is empty of the living. The background music is designed to spook the viewer. A half-mad man, whom I can only fathom must be starving, enters and gobbles the food like an animal. Then he runs away, carrying as much of the food with him as he can.
I wanted to turn it off but was afraid to get any closer to the television. Remote controls were still in the future.
The show haunted me for years. Had I actually seen such a thing or had I dreamed it? What was that about? What was the name of the movie? If I could find it and watch it again as an adult, would it make sense?
Years later, I would finally find a partial answer.
At the age of 39, I received a lovely Mother’s Day gift: a copy of Francine Rivers’ book, The Last Sin Eater. My kids knew only that I liked the author and nothing about the story or my history related to it.
The book could not have been a better gift.
Because of Rivers’ novel, a light bulb came on for me. Her story takes place in America’s Great Smoky Mountains in the 1850’s. A tradition has been carried over by immigrants from England, Scotland, and Wales. The “sin-eater” was paid a fee or given food to take upon himself the moral trespasses of the deceased and their consequences in the afterlife. Basically, he sold his soul to free the soul of the departed.
Although abundant information about this custom is now easily accessed on the internet, I had no such resource at the time. The 1926 book Funeral Customs by Bertram S. Puckle mentions the sin-eater:
“Abhorred by the superstitious villagers as a thing unclean, the sin-eater cut himself off from all social interaction and lived alone in a remote place. Those who chanced to meet him avoided him as they would a leper. Only when a death took place did they seek him out. When his purpose was accomplished, they burned the wooden bowl and platter from which he’d eaten the food placed on the corpse for his consumption.”
What poor desperate soul would volunteer for this?
Rivers’ novel (later made into a movie) introduces us to such a person. In her story, the sin-eater and a curious young girl are both led on a journey of discovery, suffering, and redemption.
Unlike some, I don’t enjoy being frightened out of my skin. You couldn’t pay me to watch horror movies, visit haunted houses, or listen to ghost stories. I figure life can be frightening enough as is.
Perhaps that’s why scripture tells us over and over to “fear not.” While some say it appears in the Bible 365 times—once for every day of the year—others say that isn’t true unless you’re exceptionally generous with interpretations. Regardless, all agree it’s the most often repeated exhortation in scripture. Could it be because fear is the opposite of faith, and faith is the first response God wants to see in us?
Traditions like the sin-eater feel desperately sad unless they point us to the only one who actually did take our sin upon himself and can truly set us free: Jesus Christ. The last sin-eater.