Gujarati/Jain Death Rituals Regarding Food

Context: The informant, A.V., is an 18 year old student with parents who immigrated from Gujarat; her family practices Jainism. Recently, her grandmother passed away, and this is what she observed immediately afterwards. Her grandmother, known as “Ba” lived with her family, and passed within the home.

Text: “When Ba passed away, a bunch of family friends came over almost immediately and when they asked my mom what they could do to help, she told them to start throwing out all the cooked food in both the refrigerator and freezer. I was really confused, so later I asked her, and she told me that if someone dies in the house, none of the cooked food is safe to eat anymore because like something about bad energy spoiling the food? Or like the aura of death in the house? I don’t remember. My cousin said it was probably because in olden times, they didn’t have much separation between the kitchen and where the death happened and also probably didn’t have good food storage, so whatever emanated from the body might end up getting in the food and making it unsafe.

The other thing was, until Ba was cremated, we weren’t allowed to make any food in the house. Family friends had to bring us food, like we couldn’t cook at all. My mom said it was partly because of the bad aura, because the house was like impure, but also partly because the spirit could linger and you want it to pass on. She said that like practically it was probably because people were supposed to have time to grieve without having to think about food, plus if people brought you food, you would have a strong community around you. Either way, it’s just kind of something you do. It doesn’t really matter if you believe in reincarnation or spirits or anything it’s just something you have to do.”

Analysis: Beyond any scientific reason that has to do with spoiled food and body-related fumes, the disposal of cooked food seems like an extension of contagious magic; as the body has died in the house, the food is no longer safe to eat because it contains that same aura of death. Rather than having an object that is once in contact always be in contact, with one having the ability to affect the other, it’s that two objects in contact with the same object (house) can affect each other. It’s almost a contagion syllogism if anything. One passing away makes the food no longer safe to eat. If anything, it’s contact magic in that the body touching the house affects the house’s purity and anything made within the house is unclean until the body is cremated, or purified.