A devout Christian has died during a fast after telling her family she wanted to emulate Christ’s 40 days and nights in the wilderness.
But finally, with her body probably weakened by years of intermittent starvation sustained only by water and her Bible, Miss Gilbert, 34, died at her home in Hackney, east London, after going without food for 23 days.
Although a post-mortem examination failed to establish the cause of death and further tests are being carried out, Miss Gilbert’s family believe she had become dangerously frail from her extreme form of worship.
Her sister Juliet Gilbert, 36, who lives in New York, said yesterday: “She started her latest fast on 19 March – just drinking water and reading the Bible. We think she maybe hadn’t drunk enough water. She was starving herself and it must have been just too much for her body to take.
“It is such a shock. She was the baby of our family. But she would have found some peace devoting herself to God. She was very religious and she used to say she was a child of God. She was not any particular Christian denomination but she was so strong in her beliefs.”
Her mother, Gloria Gilbert, 66, said yesterday: “She had been a Christian for a long time. She fasted frequently and would do it when the Lord told her to. Then she would start eating again.”
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Miss Gilbert, the youngest of eight daughters, had started her fast the day after returning to her home town of Gloucester for the christening of a niece, the last time her family had seen her. She died on 12 April and was buried last Friday in Gloucester. Her coffin had images depicting Leonardo’s Last Supper. An inquest has been opened into her death and adjourned until a date to be fixed pending toxicological tests.
After moving to London, she trained as a carpenter but mainly worked in catering and lived alone.
Religious experts said that, although fasting was common in many religions, cases of death were extremely rare. “It is a very rare and unusual case,” said Dr Marat Shterin, a lecturer in the sociology of religion at King’s College London.
“Traditionally, religious fasting has a very flexible role in all religions, with considerable creativity involved in what and when one can and cannot eat. Although we do not know what other factors are involved, such as the woman’s basic health, sometimes people can go over the top, particularly in some sectarian groups and cults.
“While some African churches do not actually encourage strict dieting, the personal involvement of some of their members in religion can be very intense.”
Amanda Van-Eck, of Inform, the information service on new religious groups and movements, said there were no suggestions of any churches encouraging fasting in Britain. “While it is possible that some small group has put an undue emphasis on fasting, it is more likely this was her decision.”
Dr Asker Jeukendrup, a nutritionist at the University of Birmingham, said it was unlikely that 23 days of starvation would kill a normally healthy and average weight person, who would be able to stand 40 days of total fasting without serious ill-effects. But he pointed out that the longer someone goes without food the more the body becomes vulnerable to illness and infection.
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