The price of sin eating however, was huge. Not only were sin eaters shunned during their earthly existence as ‘dirty’, they were also expected to pay for these sins for all eternity.
I can find very little written about the role of sin eaters in these societies. Shunned by the church and thus a somewhat clandestine activity, it seems that sin eating was some kind of theological loophole, a kind of religious insurance. I imagine that perhaps sin eating was one more ritual to ease the pain and grief for families of the dying. I imagine that perhaps it was a clever way of feeding the poor, an elaborate welfare scheme dreamt up by some enterprising and hungry human of the lower classes.
But sadness doesn’t work the same way. In telling me, I don’t believe people are suddenly free from pain. Clearly I am unable to promise them a free pass to some kind of happy heaven on earth. When they exhale their sadness for me to consume it is not the end of grief for them.
So where does this sadness come from? And what should I do with it?
I wonder if much of this sadness, or at least its appearance in my life, is because many people have no other place to put this grief. In all my research, regardless of the content matter of the study, a common thread is a sense of disconnection expressed by nearly all participants. People are lonely.
But why would they talk to me? Why unburden oneself of sadness to a complete and utter stranger? Surely that is what professional counsellors, psychiatrists and doctors are for? Yet I’d hazard a guess that many of the people I speak with either don’t want to be labelled as someone who needs to see a counsellor, or the thought has not even crossed their mind. And I am not a counsellor, let me make that clear. I am different partly because when I am offered a platter of sadness, it is by someone who knows that I need them more than they need me. Unlike a counsellor where the person who is ‘sad’ has a ‘problem’, Dr Millie Rooney visits homes not to give but to receive.
In a society that values giving over receiving to be one who receives sadness as if it was a gift is a unique position indeed. Most people who participate in my research tend to tell me that they are doing so because they want to ‘help out’, because ‘young people at university need help’ or because they want to ‘contribute to something big’.
When people offer up their grief, perhaps I need to understand this not as a burden, a poisoned feast of woe, but rather as a gift and an unconscious attempt to nourish. And perhaps it is here that sadness eating and sin eating are similar. Historically the sin eater acted as a receptacle for sins, a place to put past misdemeanours and file them safely away. As a sadness eater perhaps I do the same thing. I provide an opportunity for people to air their sadness and in doing so to start to move on.
Sure, I’m often sick with tears after these meals, but I’m also warmed and satisfied by the trust that strangers place in me when they ask me to taste their personal recipes of sorrow. Rather than resenting the inconvenience of a melancholy meal, perhaps these meals can be seen as incredible gifts of human connection. It is important to recognise that research is about far more than pure data collection and analysis, research itself can play an unexpected role in the knitting together the fabric of our society.