Cultures from all over the world have age-old traditions for accommodating the death of a loved one. For example, when someone dies in Jerusalem the body is thoroughly washed and buried in a simple pine coffin wearing a simple white shroud, or tachrichim. In Japan, the body is cremated immediately following the service, at which point the family members use special chopsticks to pull small bones from the ashes and place them in an urn, or Kotsutsubo.
Being Irish, and circling St. Patty’s Day, I was curious as to what happens in Ireland. Well, Ireland like the whiskey she produces, does not disappoint. When it comes to ancient traditions concerning burying their dead, some of the traditions are very similar to those practiced all over the world. Covering mirrors, stopping clocks, and opening windows are just a few of the time-honored practices that happen during the death of a loved one, that is still very much alive in Ireland.
I recall a friend recounting a nurse opening up a nearby window moments after her mother passed. Without an explanation, she knew the nurses’ intention. The opening of a window when someone passes allows the deceased to be greeted by their ancestors and together they ascend into heaven.
However, along with the easy, loving, lighthearted gestures one can offer during these moments of great despair, some traditions feel slightly more macabre.
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In ancient Ireland, you were not permitted to cry. At least not until your cue, which was when the preparation of the body was complete. It was then that the lead “Keener”(a woman) would begin. The keener would weep and wail and recite poetry, only to be joined in short order by more women following suit.
Probably the most disturbing, albeit sacrificial Irish funeral tradition is that of the “Sin-Eater.” Since the early 1600s and through the 20th century, a sin-eater was a straight-up, legitimate profession born of the worry that a loved one was at risk of spending the rest of eternity in the fiery pits of hell. As strange as it sounds, it was a common profession along the British Isles. Terrified and grieving family members would pay the local sin-eaters to rid the dead of the error of their ways. Upon arrival, the sin-eaters would first place a plate of salt on the breast of the deceased, then layer a piece of bread on top of the salt. An incantation would be said over the bread, which the hired sin-eater would eventually eat, thereby eating the actual sins of the dead.
Maybe it’s because I’m Irish, but this ritual makes perfect sense to me. Although, who eats the sins of the sin-eater?
Unfortunately, the Catholic church became involved, making sin-eating against the law and punishable by death. A strange irony.
The last known sin-eater was a man by the name of Richard Munslow. Richard died in 1906 in England’s West Midlands county of Shropshire, and sadly it is unlikely he procured a sin-eater of his own.
Born to a wealthy family, he entered the profession of sin-eating purely from a place of love. Love for his fellow villagers. He had a genuine desire to assist the dead and help them pass on to heaven.
In 2010, in honor of the late and loving sin-eater, a collection was taken from the villagers in the town, and his grave which had fallen into disrepair was restored.