Tuesday, 27 September 2016

Death in the Victorian Era part 11: Sin Eater

Death in the Victorian Era part 11: Sin Eater

A relic from times previous to the Victorian Era, Sin Eaters, carried on a long held tradition that became more refined as the century past. Sin Eaters were men, usually of the lowest socioeconomic status, paid to enter the house of the dead and eat bread and salt from a plate that rested upon the chest of the deceased during the wake period.  It was thought that the Sin Eater, by consuming the food, would take on the sins of the deceased, who had magically transferred their wrong doings into the food that lay upon their chest.
 It was quite common for Sin Eaters, after finishing their meal, to beaten severely by the family,

abused by onlookers and generally treated with disdain by gathered mourners.

 After the Sin Eater left the building, the mourning family would stand on one side of the coffin and hand pieces of “Arvil” cake across the corpse to mourners, the cake wold then be washed down with port or spiced ale, once this ritual was complete; the pallbearers could begin their job.
 Some of the upper class used special ‘mazer’ bowls to place the Sin Eater’s food in upon the body, these bowls were highly decorative, and some were specifically designed well in advance of death, so the deceased could rest assured that he would have the funeral decorations that he deserved, and that showed his social status to the degree he desired. After the funeral, the bowls would become family heirlooms passed down through generations.
 By the end of the Victorian Era, funeral furniture and etiquette's had begun to change dramatically, and Sin Eaters were close to being forgotten. Funerals now featured small ‘funeral biscuits’, symbolising the earlier ‘Arvil Cakes’. In America these gave way to Funeral Cookies.
 The wealthier elite instead of the lesser ‘funeral biscuit’ had a cake somewhat like a ‘lady finger’. These cakes would be wrapped in paper with a black wax seal, and could be taken home after the funeral to eat.
 The following is a description after a funeral in Yorkshire:
"funeral of the richer sort": "They had burnt wine and a paper with two [Lady Finger] biscuits sealed up to carry home for their families. The paper in which these biscuits were sealed was printed on one side with a coffin, cross-bones, skulls, hacks, spades, hour-glass, etc... sealed with black wax."
 One of the last Sin Eaters recorded was an unknown man who stood beside the grave of Richard Munslow in Shropshire, England in 1906. After eating bread and drinking ale, said the following words; "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”
 The common folk of many European villages held the belief that sin eaters had mystical powers, not only did they eat the sins of the dead, they could also stop their souls returning as wandering ghosts.
 Sin Eaters were shunned by society, it was the lowest of the low to become one, and in turn, the townsfolk of the villages these poor people would live in, would go out of their way to avoid known Sin Eaters, yet they would call upon them in an instant to eat the sins of their dearly beloved, to gain them passage in to Heaven.
Believe it or not, the practice of Sin Eating survives to this day in some areas of Germany, Romania, Serbia, Croatia and other Balkans nations.

Next Week: Death in the Victorian Era part 12: Frozen Charlotte

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Tuesday, 20 September 2016

Death in the Victorian Era part 10: Mourning Cards

Death in the Victorian Era part 10: Mourning Cards
A tradition that has stayed with us from the Victorian Era, although somewhat altered and modernised is the Mourning Card.

Traditionally, Mourning Cards were supplied by the Undertaker. The card was usually printed black and silver on a white background, but depending on the status of the person, they could become quite ornate, with some examples having inset photos.
 Most would feature traditional grief symbology, crosses, a female mourner or one of the many other symbols that reminded the reader of death.
The card featured the name of the deceased, sometimes their birth-date and details about the funeral. They were a standard size of around 3 by 4.5 inches.  On occasion they might be sent out to those who could not attend the funeral, as a reminder of the person, and to remind the viewer to add the recently deceased to their prayers.

 As Mourning Cards became ever more popular, their appearance became more intricate, with some containing gold embossing, poems, prayers, artworks or photos of the deceased. Cards belonging to direct family members might’ve also contained a lock of the deceased’s hair or a button from their clothing. The card and the lock of hair would then be presented in the home in a special frame, or sometimes an elaborate mourning card stand

By the 1900’s the cards had become much simpler, and with the modern advent of printing technology, today we see cards that feature photos, prayers, funeral details and so much more in high gloss print, but nothing we do today, comes close to the artistry of the Victorian Era Mourning Card.

Next Week: Death in the Victorian Era part 11: Sin Eaters

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