Claire passed away on Friday, September 20, 2013, around 10:30 AM in her room at the Home of the Little Sisters of the Poor where she was living in Brussels. That morning, the nurses helped her for her toilet and she was relaxed and smiling. As usual, they had left Claire alone to finish her dressing. Only half an hour later, someone came to her room to bring her holy communion and she was found kneeling in front of her chair, already lifeless. According to her doctor, she didn’t suffer, it is her heart which let her down. For the last weeks, she looked really better, in spite of her difficult mobility, and on the preceding Monday she had the occasion to attend the inaugural session of the International Leprosy Congress which was held just in Brussels. She had the opportunity to meet many friends and colleagues from India and elsewhere.
It was obviously consternation among her family and friends in Belgium, but also in India. On the same day the news actually spread across India as some former colleagues of Claire, who had attended to the Leprosy Congress were still in a working session in Brussels at the Damien Foundation. Dr. Shivakumar, secretary of the Damien Foundation in India, decided to postpone his return to India in order to represent all the “leprosy community” of India at the funerals.
Another Indian presence at the funeral : Asha and Isha, the two daughters of the adoptive family of Claire. Asha, who is living in Chennai and had unexpectedly lost her husband four months ago, was visiting her sister Isha in Paris, and they had made plans to come both of them to Brussels on the next weekend to visit Claire !
In the days that followed the death of Claire, we received hundreds of messages from Belgium, India and elsewhere, to pay tribute to all what Claire had been for all those who had met her. The 3 – 4 nephews and nieces who were closer to Claire wanted to prepare a ceremony that would shows serenity and recognition : Claire has gone through with her commitments, in simplicity and with concern for the poorest, and we are happy to have shared some moments of her life.
A prayers vigil was first held on Wednesday, September 25, at a Funeral at Watermael-Boitsfort (Brussels). Close relatives and a few friends gathered around the body of Claire, before the coffin would be closed. Moments of prayers, a song sung in Tamil by Asha, a few personal testimonies, but only one was recorded, the one by Isabelle Sepulchre, Claire’s doctor.
The eucharistic celebration took place on Thursday, September 26 in the chapel of the Little Sisters of the Poors, where Claire had come to pray so often over the past four years, with the other residents of the nursing home. Father Thierry Kervyn had agreed to chair the ceremony : longtime friend of Francine and Jacques, he had already met Claire at Polambakkam in 1974, and it is him that Claire chose as her “spiritual guide” when she came back to Belgium. Thierry was assisted by Father Pierre Gillet who worked for many years in India (Kanyakumari) and is part of the SAM, a congregation inspired by Father Lebbe as the AFI-ICA. Isabelle Sepulchre had agreed to direct and lead the songs with her guitar, which she did brilliantly. Fredo Becker, a grandnephew of Claire, improvised some musical interludes on his Bhansuri flute (as he had done several years ago at Anandapuram), while Asha and Isha sang a song in Tamil during the final blessing. Claire Sepulchre, Isabelle’s daughter, took most of the photos and videos that illustrate the ceremony.
Immediately after the ceremony, the family along with some friends and several AFI-ICA companions of Claire went to the crematorium at Uccle– Brussels where, after a Magnificat sung together and a song in Tamil by Asha and Isha, took place the ceremonial of the incineration.
For the scattering of ashes of Claire, we chose three symbolic places that reflect the commitments of Claire’s life and — we think — she would have appreciated.
A small portion of the ashes was entrusted to Dr. Shivakumar who, on October 1 at 8am (local time), immersed the ashes in the holy waters of the Ganga in Varanasi (Benares), in a ceremony he performed at the same time for the ashes of his father, who died a few months earlier. Claire had once enjoyed the peacefulness of that holy place when she stayed for a few days at the Little Sisters of Jesus just on the banks of the Ganga.
Another portion of the ashes was given to Asha who, back in India, entrusted it to Father Suresh who will organise a ceremony at Anandapuram in remembrance of Claire, who spent many hours there and was very sensitive to these patients that medicine was not able to save in time.
Finally, it is at Banneux, a pilgrimage plage to Our Lady (south of Liege, eastern Belgium), that the funeral urn was brought with the remaining ashes. The AFI-ICA have a burial vault in the cemetery of Banneux for those of their members who want it, as they had previously a training centre in that locality. When Claire attended the funeral of Geo Wilmet (the former president of AFI-ICA) at Banneux, she had expressed a desire to be with Geo and her other companions if she died in Belgium. So, on October 29, 2013, Claire’s birthday — she would have been 87 — several AFI-ICA members and some nieces and nephews participated in a moment of prayers and deposited the urn in the vault.
Besides the memento that each of us will keep from Claire, at home and in our hearts, Claire will have two public memorials, one in Belgium and the other in India. In addition to the tree which was symbolically planted in her name in some plantations in Niger to fight against deforestation.