Where Have All the Sin-Eaters Gone? (We Could Use Some Right Now)

Thomas Lynch on Breaking Bread with the Dead, and Old Catholic Traditions

Argyle, the sin-eater, came into being in the hard winter of 1984. My sons were watching a swashbuckler on television—The Master of Ballantrae—based on Robert Louis Stevenson’s novel about two Scots brothers and their imbroglios. I was dozing in the wingback after a long day at the funeral home, waking at intervals too spaced to follow the narrative arc.

But one scene I half wakened to—the gauzy edges of memory still give way—involved a corpse laid out on a board in front of a stone tower house, kinsmen and neighbors gathered round in the gray, sodden moment. Whereupon a figure of plain force, part pirate, part panhandler, dressed in tatters, unshaven and wild-eyed, assumed what seemed a liturgical stance over the body, swilled beer from a wooden bowl and tore at a heel of bread with his teeth.

Wiping his face on one arm, with the other he thrust his open palm at the woman nearest him. She pressed a coin into it spitefully and he took his leave. Everything was gray: the rain and fog, the stone tower, the mourners, the corpse, the countervailing ambivalences between the widow and the horrid man. Swithering is the Scots word for it—to be of two minds, in two realities at once: grudging and grateful, faithful and doubtful, broken and beatified—caught between a mirage and an apocalypse. The theater of it was breathtaking, the bolt of drama. I was fully awake. It was over in ten, maybe fifteen seconds.

I knew him at once.

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The scene triggered a memory of a paragraph I’d read 12 years before in mortuary school, from The History of American Funeral Directing, by Robert Habenstein and William Lamers. I have that first edition, by Bulfin Printers of Milwaukee circa 1955.

The paragraph in Chapter III, page 128, at the bottom reads:

A nod should be given to customs that disappeared. Puckle tells of a curious functionary, a sort of male scapegoat called the “sin-eater.” It was believed in some places that by eating a loaf of bread and drinking a bowl of beer over a corpse, and by accepting a six-pence, a man was able to take unto himself the sins of the deceased, whose ghost thereafter would no longer wander.

The “Puckle” referenced was Bertram S. Puckle, a British scholar, whose Funeral Customs, Their Origin and Development would take me another 40 years to find and read. But the bit of cinema and the bit of a book had aligned like tumblers of a combination lock clicking into place and opening a vault of language and imagination.

By broaching the notion of substitutionary atonement—that Jesus came to die for our sins, in particular the residual stain of Original Sin that closed the gates of Paradise to us—upon which much of western religiosity rests, the film image of the sin-eater and the Puckle paragraph established a visual and textual alternative to the nearly naked “savior” hanging dead on the cross as the sacrificial lamb of God at the center of the sacred theater of the liturgy I’d grown up with as the child of practicing Catholics.

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The loaf and bowl consumed over a corpse, the six-pence paid by widow out of her want, the transfer of punishment from sinners to wandering sin-eater rather than a divine “savior,” became the elements of a communion and tithe that fit nicely with my own insidious questioning of the church’s principle faith claims.

It fit nicely with my evolving sense that rather than a god in his heaven, it might well be another fellow human who, through offices performed over a corpse, eventually assisted the humans to whom the corpse had mattered. Furthermore, the enterprise of reconciliation and forgiveness was a business conducted among and between fellow humans, often out of their own self-interest, often out of nothing more complex than hunger and thirst.

Introibo ad altare Dei is what James Joyce had “stately, plump Buck Mulligan” intone on the opening page of his epic Ulysses, holding a bowl of lather aloft. And years later, reading that book for the first time, Ad deum qui laetificat juventutem meam, still formed in my memory as the cadenced response to the gods who’d given joy to my youth. Irreverence seemed a proper seasoning by then, the grain of salt added to articles of faith.

For all of my mother’s and the priest’s well-intentioned connivances, and though I kept my ears peeled for it, I never ever heard the voice of God. I remember seeing the dead priest’s cassock hanging from a rafter in my grandparents’ basement, a box with his biretta and other priestly things on a shelf beside it.

I tried them on but nothing seemed to fit, and over time my life of faith came to include an ambivalence about the church that ranged from passion to indifference—a kind of swithering, brought on, no doubt, by mighty nature—the certain sense awakened in me when I was 12 or thereabouts that among the good lord’s greatest gifts to humankind were the gifts he gave us of each other. Possibly it was meditating on the changes I could see in bodies all around me and sense in my own body, late in my grade-school years, that there were aspects of the priestly life that would be, thanks be to God, impossible for me.

I record these things because they seem somehow the ground and compost out of which Argyle rose, in that flash of recognition years ago, to become the mouthpiece for my mixed religious feelings. If I’d learned sin and guilt and shame and contrition from the nuns and priests, I was likewise schooled in approval and tolerance and inextinguishable love by my parents, earthen vessels though they were.

Grace—the unmerited favor of Whoever Is in Charge Here—was the gift outright of my upbringing. It made me, like the apostle the priest I’d been named for was named for, a doubter and contrarian—grateful for religious sensibilities but wary of all magisteriums.

By the end of winter that first year I’d written three or four Argyle poems. I field-tested them at Joe’s Star Lounge on North Main Street in Ann Arbor where boozers and poets would gather on Sunday afternoons to read their latest to one another. It was a kind of communion, I suppose, or potluck anyway: everyone bringing a “dish” to pass, their best home recipes of words. I liked the sound of them in my mouth, the cadence of Argyle’s odd adventures and little blasphemies.

His name came easy, after the socks, of course, the only thing I knew that was reliably Scots, apart from whiskey, and the acoustic resemblance to “our guile,” which sounded a note not far from “guilt,” both notions that attached themselves to his invention.

These were the days long before one could Google up facts on demand, when writers were expected to just make things up out of the whole cloth of imagination: his loneliness, the contempt of locals, the contretemps of clergy—I intuited these, along with the sense of his rootlessness, his orphanage and pilgrimage. I’d spent, by then, enough time in the rural western parishes of Ireland and Scotland to have a sense of the landscapes and people he would find himself among—their “ground sense” and land passions, their religious sensibilities.

Prayer and poetry are both forms of “raised speech” by which we attempt to commune with our makers and creation, with the gone but not forgotten.

And the two dozen lines of the first of these poems, each of the lines ranging between nine and a dozen syllables and thus conforming to an imprecise pentameter, seemed perfectly suited to the brief meditations and reliance on numbers and counts that were part of the churchy rubrics: stations of the cross, deadly sins, glorious and sorrowful mysteries, corporal and spiritual works of mercy, the book of hours. Hence this breviary: a couple dozen poems, a couple dozen lines each, a couple dozen photos, about which more anon.

By turns, of course, I began to identify with Argyle. As the only funeral director in a small town in Michigan, I was aware of the ambivalence of human sorts toward anyone who takes on undertakings involving money and corpses, religious practice and residual guilt. Both undertaker and sin-eater know that people in need are glad to see you coming and gladder still to see you gone.

Argyle fit my purposes and circumstances. The work to which he had, by force of hunger, been called seemed in concert with my own summons and stumblings both religiously and occupationally. He is trying to keep body and soul together. And these poems articulate the mixed blessing and contrariety of my own life of faith—pre–Vatican II to the Current Disaster. I have been variously devout and devoutly lapsed.

The church of my childhood—the “holy mother” it called itself—has left no few of its children more damaged than doted over, more ignored than nurtured, orphaned and hungry, fed a thin gruel of religiosity rather than the loaves and fishes of spiritual sustenance. The ongoing failure of its management class, its up-line politics and old-boy malfeasances have done remarkable damage to generations of faithful servant priests and faithful people.

Of course, the life of faith is never settled, driven as it must be by doubts and wonder, by those experiences, losses and griefs that cast us adrift, set us to wander the deserts, wrestle with angels. And for Argyle, as for all fellow pilgrims, the tensions between community and marginalization, orthodoxy and apostasy, authority and autonomy, belonging and disbelief, keep him forever second-guessing where he stands with God. In this state of flux we are not alone.

The sin-eater is both appalled by his culture’s religiosity and beholding to it. The accountancy of sin and punishment at once offends him and feeds him. He is caught in the struggle between views of damnation and salvation and the God he imagines as the loving parents he never knew—pure forgiveness, constant understanding, permanent love. He lives in constant hope and fear, despair and faith, gratitude and God hunger. In the end he isn’t certain but believes that everything is forgiven, whomever God is or isn’t, everything is reconciled.

If the English master, W. H. Auden, was correct, and “art is what we do to break bread with the dead,” then the Irish master, Seamus Heaney, was likewise correct when he suggests that “rhyme and meter are the table manners.” Prayer and poetry are both forms of “raised speech” by which we attempt to commune with our makers and creation, with the gone but not forgotten.

Argyle’s hunger, his breaking bread upon the dead, is a metaphor for all those rituals and rubrics by which our kind seek to commune with those by whom we are haunted—the ghosts of those gone before us, parents and lovers, mentors and heroes, friends and fellow outcasts, who share with us this sweet humanity, our little moments, the sense we are always trying to make of it in words. His is a sacrament of renewal and restoration. It is in such communion that our hope is nourished—the hope that is signature to our species—that there may be something in nature’s harmonium and hush discernible as the voice of God.

Much the same with icon and image—the things we see in which we might see other things, the hand of God or the hand of man partaking in the same creation. Thus these photographs, taken by my son, Michael, in his many visits to our home in Ireland—the house his great-great-grandfather came out of, the house to which I was the first of our family to return, now more than 40 years ago, the house my great-great-grandfather was given as a wedding gift in the decade after the worst of the famines in the middle of the 19th century.

When I first went to Ireland—a young man with a high number in the Nixon draft lottery and, therefore, a future stretched out before me—I thought I’d see the 40 shades of green. And though I arrived in the off-season, with a one-way ticket, no money or prospects, in a poor county of a poor country, as disappointing a Yank as ever there was, I was welcomed by cousins who could connect me to the photo that hung on their wall of their cousin, a priest, who had died years before.

They took me in, put me by the fire, fed me and gave me to believe that I belonged there, I was home. If there is a heaven it might feel like that. In the fullness of time, they left the house to me: a gift, a grace. Everything in those times seemed so black and white—the cattle, the clergy, the stars and dark, right and wrong, love and hate, the edges and borders all well-defined.

But now it all seems like shades of gray, shadow and apparition, glimpses only, through the half-light of daybreak and gloaming, mirage and apocalypse, a kind of swithering. And so these photos of home fires and icons, landscapes and interiors, graveyards and coast roads, asses and cattle, statues and stone haunts—all in black and white and shades of gray: like doubt and faith, what may or mayn’t be, what is or isn’t, happenstance or the hand of God.

In the end, Argyle is just trying to find his way home, burdened by mighty nature, life’s work and tuitions; he’s looking for a place at a table where he is always welcome and never alone. In the end he is possessed of few certainties or absolutes, his faith always seasoned by wonder and doubt. He knows if there’s a god, it is not him. If there is one, then surely we are all God’s children or none of us are.

Either way, the greatest gifts are one another, the greatest sins against each other. To be forgiven, he must forgive everything, because God loves all children or none of them, forgives everything or forgives nothing at all, hears all our prayers or none of them.

At the end, all of his prayers have been reduced to thanks. All of the answers have become you’re welcome.

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Excerpted from The Depositions: New and Selected Essays on Being and Ceasing to Be. Used with the permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton & Company. Copyright © 2019 by Thomas Lynch.

Thomas Lynch
Thomas Lynch
Thomas Lynch has authored five collections of poetry, one of stories, and four books of essays. His first, The Undertaking, won the Heartland Prize for Non-Fiction and the American Book Award, and was a finalist for the National Book Award. His writing has appeared in the Atlantic, Granta, Harper’s Magazine, and the New York Times, among other publications. He works as a funeral director in Milford, Michigan, and teaches at the Bear River Writer’s Conference.





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