The tranquil setting of St Margaret’s Church in the tiny village of Ratlinghope, Shrewsbury, is the final resting place of Richard Munslow, a local farmer who died in 1906. His memorial stone was recently restored at great cost by locals in the surrounding area, who held a commemorative service in his honor upon its completion in 2010.
What led a tiny rural community to make such efforts to remember this local gentleman? It transpires that Richard Munslow was the last known sin-eater in England.
The unenviable practice of sin-eating was usually undertaken by beggars and the poor, who would “pawn their souls”—or be paid to eat and drink over a corpse—to “take on” the sins of the suddenly deceased (who had been unable to confess their sins before death). In some areas, it was thought this ritual ensured the recently departed an untroubled passage into Heaven.
Sin-eaters were also said to prevent the sin-ridden dead from returning to Earth in the form of ghosts or spirits. They were therefore generally shunned by locals as they were associated with evil spirits and witchcraft, and only summoned when there was a need for their services. Some say that even the wooden platter used to serve the food to the sin-eater would be burned by the superstitious mourners, and to look a sin-eater in the eye was held to be extremely bad luck.
Sin-eating is thought to have been an ancient custom; it was recorded in many areas of the U.K., but mainly practiced in the Marches Welsh/English border region until it largely died out by the 19th century. Unusually, Munslow was a well-to-do farmer of good social standing, rather than a social outcast. It is believed that the tragic loss of four of his children at very early ages—three of whom died of Scarlet Fever within one week in May 1870—may be the reason he resurrected the macabre ritual. The memorial stone at his gravesite commemorates these losses.
Know Before You Go
St Margaret’s Church is normally open during daylight hours. There is limited parking available in the road adjoining the entrance gateway, where there is also a designated stop for the Long Mynd and Stiperstones Shuttle.