For those who believed in an afterlife, death included the fear of punishment for misdeeds committed and unforgiven. For centuries, believers confessed their sins and sought forgiveness on their deathbeds. The souls of these who had not been forgiven were believed to wander where they had lived, bringing distress and ill fortune to their survivors. Over time, humankind developed various means to ease the passage of souls to a peaceful life in the hereafter. One method, whose origins can be traced to Egyptian and Greek civilizations, was embodied in the "sin eater," a person who was believed to possess the ability to symbolically ingest the sins of the deceased through eating and drinking over the recently deceased corpse. The sin eater, a secular person performing a quasi-spiritual role, was paid for this important service.
The central theme of this custom is the persistent, universal need to placate the souls of the deceased, to help the soul on its way and to be rid of it, lest it return and cause distress among the living. Eating in the presence of the corpse is customary in a number of cultures, as is token payment of a coin to those who assist in passage to the afterlife, such as the Greek mythological character Charon.
Habenstein, Robert W., and William M. Lamers. The History of American Funeral Directing. Milwaukee, WI: Bulfin Printers, 1955.
Lynch, Thomas. Still Life in Milford: Poems. New York: W. W. Norton, 1998.
Puckle, Bertram S. Funeral Customs: Their Origin and Development. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 1990.
WILLIAM M. LAMERS JR.