Death isn’t easy to talk about, yet Claire tackles the topic with candour, insight and sensitivity. Her journey from property law to organic farming, through running a grocery store, brought her to a turning point. With business partner Rose Gilder, she has launched Undertaking Grace, a not-for-profit organisation offering death literacy, funerals and bereavement care.
What brought you to Mansfield?
My late husband, Garryn, and I came to Mansfield for his work in 2011. We moved from Ellinbank, Gippsland, where we operated an organic orchard and CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) vegetable garden. Previous to that we were in Brisbane where we spent our formative years.
What was your first job in Mansfield?
Three months after I arrived, I took over a business from a guy in town, who bought fruit and vegetables direct from the wholesale market and ran a little shed once a week. I sourced 100% from organic farmers and Hoffman’s Green Grocer was born. For seven years, I ran the grocery, selling it in December 2018.
What prompted you to change careers?
The mysteries of life interest me, and death fascinates me. I’ve always wanted to be of service, helping people through times of grief and trauma. Many years ago, I was introduced to the idea of death midwifery and in January 2018, I started thinking about giving Mansfield another choice of funeral homes with an emphasis on empowering families to take ownership of death.
In May of that year, my husband Garryn died suddenly and traumatically. I was thrust into a position of making a lot of serious choices in a short amount of time. Luckily, I knew my legal rights in Australia with respect to funerals and my family supported my somewhat ‘alternative’ desires. I didn’t want anybody else to care for Garryn, I wanted to do everything I could until I could do no more.
The Coroner released Garryn’s body to me. We brought him home and prepared him for burial ourselves. This gave us time to accept that he was dead while we could still be with him and say everything we wanted to say and to start the grieving process. For three days, family and friends paid their respects and said their farewells. We washed and anointed him, sang to him, and helped each other through this harrowing time.
I left this experience in a complete grief haze, however deep down, I knew it was the most cathartic thing I could have done. Facing my fears at that time helped me later, when learning to live without him.
After this experience, I wanted to change the death scene in Australia. I’m starting in my town by offering death literacy and support to people facing the death of a beloved.
What is death literacy?
It’s education about death and dying. One thing we are all born with is certain death. No life can escape, however our culture has become death phobic. The funeral industry was built on the foundation of removing the responsibility for death from us.
To own our own death and that of our loved ones, we need to embrace our mortality and think about the legacy we wish to leave. While death can come knocking at any time, we can control some things: What is it that you want? What must you do to be at peace with yourself? Reflecting on your life and the people who have shaped it brings an understanding, which generates compassion and kindness.
Having these conversations with family and friends creates a foundation for them to lean on if sudden death occurs. This empowers families because they know they are attending to your wishes. Young or old, sick or in good health, we should all do this.
Tell us about Undertaking Grace.
We have just launched our website and are open for business offering support for those dying and their families, home vigils and funerals, and specialized bereavement care. Part of this is to walk you through our toolkit, Don’t Die Without Me, to record the death literacy conversations described above – we help you to understand what you can control and encourage you to think about what you would like to leave behind.
Rose and I have both completed training with Zenith Virago from the Natural Death Care Centre. I travelled to Arizona in September this year to undertake the Compassionate Bereavement Care Training through the Centre for Loss and Trauma.
How do you juggle a new business with single parenting?
I take it in my stride as gracefully as possible! It is my reality and I do what I can to balance being there for my girl and being of service to my community in a way that enriches me. I wake up each morning and commit to each day with an open heart and fierce compassion.
Where to from here?
I aim to be the best funeral director I can be, and to be there for families in times of grief and trauma. We are really settled here in Mansfield with an incredible community of friends. Avalokita is firmly happy at her school. I don’t plan to leave anytime soon, especially now with our new undertaking!
Next time: Fire it Up!
Next interview: Kirsten Alexander on Riptides, her latest novel set in Queensland in the 1970s
Next Mansfield interview: a must-read for anyone with a snake fascination, Trevor McDonald, the Reptile Wrangler