Sin-eating & Singing: A Welsh Funeral.

A funeral at Llansteffan - Peoples Collection Wales


From Ty Corff to Sin-eating, I'll be exploring death, burial and mourning customs/ traditions relating to Wales. Although some of these will seem alien to us, these customs were an important part of the death and funeral process.

Ty Corff, Gwlynos, and the Funeral 

In rural Wales, the death of a local person was formally announced by the bell of the parish church.

During the hours following the death, the 'Diweddu' took place at 'Ty Corff'. This was the washing and preparing of the body before it was placed in the coffin.

When the body was placed in the coffin, certain steps were taken that were thought to prevent decay and the influence of evil. A pewter plate filled with salt was placed on the chest of the deceased. In Betws-y-coed, a piece of green sod, wrapped in paper was used instead of salt. By this time, the coffin would have been moved into the family home. Members of the deceased family and neighbours volunteered to sit up each night in the room in which the body rested. This was known as 'Gwylio'r Corff.'



A 'Gwylnos' was held on the night before the funeral. In preparation for the 'Gwlynos', the room in which the corpse lay would be adorned with linen sheets with laurel leaves pinned to them. Two candles were then placed at the head and feet of the body. A variation of this practice was recorded in Pembrokeshire during the 1850s. This was in the form of a lighted candle on a plate placed on the chest of the deceased during the 'Gwylnos'.

An account by Lewis Morris of a 'Gwylnos' that took place in Anglesey during the mid-18th century:

“The night before Ye Burying all the neighbours & friends of Ye Deceased come & watch his Body & to say their prayers., or Pater nosters ye saying is, Padreua i'r Wylnos as they term it, and there sitt up all night a-drinking smoaking singing of carols or some ancient odes to ye purpose & playing all little mountebank tricks as they can think on to keep themselves awake.

At their entrance into ye house they first go to ye room where (the) dead Body lies & say the Lord's prayer kneeling by ye dead body, and when they get up one of ye nearest relations or masters of ye ceremonies give each a cup of ale & they are ordered to sit down. At ye dusk of the night an evening prayer is read by ye clergyman of ye parish or if not present by one of ye company. 

The neglect of which they think to be a great slur on ye family. The singing of psalms if they can or else fall to singing of carols which are ancient songs containing Reflections upon death & Immortality of ye Soul.” 


Wellcome Collection
























According to a Pembrokeshire writer, that until the middle of the 18th-century it was common for the body of the deceased to be drawn up through the chimney of the house during the 'Gwylnos.'

On the day of the funeral, a corpse-bell or small hand bell was rung by the parish clerk who walked in front of the funeral procession. Every parish had a traditional route that the procession followed. It was believed that any other route taken would cause the deceased to have no rest.

During the funeral service, an offering of money was made as a mark of respect to the clergyman. Poor mourners would be expected to give at least sixpence or a shilling. The other mourners were expected to give at least half a crown or a crown. This money was placed on top of the coffin and collected at the end of the service.

A second offering of money was given at the graveside. This was called 'Arian Rhaw' (spade money) Named so as the money was collected in a spade over the grave by the parish clerk.

After the service, a custom known as the 'shot' was practised. This took place at a local public house, usually near the church. Beer was brought to the table in jugs, with small glasses. The person in charge would shout “Y mae 'r ty yn rhydd!” (The house is free!) The mourners would then drink the 'shot' until the beer was gone and it would be repeated until they could drink no more.

This was paid for by the mourners. The names and addresses of those who contributed to the 'shot' were written down and given to the family of the deceased. It was seen as disrespectful not to contribute to this custom.

Sin-eating 


On some occasions after a sudden death, the local Sin-eater was called upon. This mysterious custom is known to have been practised in rural areas of Wales/Hereford and was usually associated with the poor classes. As the name suggests, the job of a Sin-eater was to 'eat' the sins of those who did not have the opportunity to confess their sins on their death bed.

The Sin-eater would eat bread and drink ale off the body of the deceased, thus absorbing his/her sins. This was thought to ease the passage to heaven as the deceased would not be weighed done by his/her sins.

The first record of the Sin-eater is found John Aubrey's 'Remaines of Gentilisme and Judaisme' written between 1687 – 1689.

“In the County of Hereford [there] was an Old Custom at Funeralls, to hire poor people, who were to take upon them all the Sinnes of the party deceased... The manner was that when the Corps was brought-out of the house and layd on the Biere; a Loafe of bread was brought out, and delivered to the Sinne-eater over the corps, as also a Mazar-bowle full of beer, which he was to drinke up, and sixpence in money, in consideration whereof, he took upon himself all the Sinnes of the Defunct, and freed him from Walking after they were dead.” 

An article in the Lancaster Gazette described the Sin-eater as someone “who undertook so daring an imposture must all have been infidels, willing, apparently, like Esau, to sell their birthright for a mess of pottage.” 

A later mention of this custom comes from the writer Mathew Moggridge in 1852. At a meeting of The Cambrian Archaeology Association, he describes the practice as follows:

“The custom of employing the sin-eater probably obtained in ancient times throughout a large portion of Wales and its Marches. When a person died, the friends sent for the sin-eater of the district, who on his arrival placed a plate of salt on the breast of the defunct, and upon the salt a piece of bread. He then muttered an incantation over the bread, which he finally ate—thereby eating up all the sins of the deceased. This done he received his fee of 2s. 6d., and vanished as quickly as possible from the general gaze; for, as it was believed that he really appropriated to his own use and behoof the sins of all those over whom he performed the above ceremony, he was utterly detested in the neighbourhood.”


Mourning Card - National Museum of Wales




Mourning Jewellery and Mourning Cards


Mourning rings and jewellery were worn to remind the living of their deceased relatives. As well as this, they reminded the wearer of their inevitable demise. Mourning jewellery came in various different forms including brooches, necklaces, and bracelets.

Families were able to send the hair to businesses that specialised in mourning jewellery.
The hair would be woven into a pattern and incorporated into a ring or another piece of jewellery.
Engraved on the back of the jewellery would be the name, age, and date of death of the loved one.

During the funeral of the Earl of Powis in 1801, memorial rings were distributed to those who attended the funeral. The Earl of Powis requested this in his Will and the rings were paid for by his estate.

Shortly after the death of Dr. Benjamin Franklin in 1790, Benjamin Rush gave a lock of Dr. Franklin's hair to Dr. Richard Price. When Dr. Price passed away the following year, a lock of his hair was taken and along with Dr. Franklin's was fashioned into part of a mourning ring.

Memorial Cards were often given out to friends and relatives at funerals. These were usually decorated with a black bordering, a verse, and illustration. On occasion, a photograph of the deceased would be included on the card. As well as being given out at individual funerals, Memorial Cards were given out at funerals of those who died during disasters.

The mourning ring containing the hair of Dr. Price & Dr. Franklin.

(Sources: Peoples Collection Wales - National Museum of Wals - Trefor Owen) 

2 comments

  1. This is a really interesting post Louvain, thank you very much, for such a well researched and fascinating insight.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Fascinating!

    I can remember discussions of Sin Eaters during my youth (1980s Cynon Valley) although I never saw it in practice, I remember coffins were still watched over all the night before the funeral.

    Neeedless to say, much drink was still taken.

    Thanks for the blog Louvain.

    ReplyDelete

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