Roy Exum: Two Funeral Lessons

Monday, October 7, 2019 - by Roy Exum
Roy Exum
Roy Exum

One of my personal life’s rules is hardly a secret. “You can fake you care … but you can’t fake showing up.” That truism is right up there with my feelings about funerals: “If you don’t go, the family will never know it … but, if you do, they’ll never forget it.” Over the weekend there were two blessings set before us on the big table that were as vivid as the tag-line in Randy Travis’ song about roadside crosses: “I guess it's not what you take when you leave this world behind you, It's what you leave behind you when you go.”

The first blessing actually started in mid-July when Dennis Valstad died in Ripon, Wisc., following a stroke. Friends of the lifelong  bachelor remember him as being “exceptionally kind,” and never one to draw any attention to himself. Dennis was a quiet man and lived by modest means, but then the letters from his lawyer began arriving about two weeks ago. Each one, I guarantee you, was read two or three times, all 267 of them, and each aroused total disbelief.

Dennis Valstad, who never ventured far from his small town in the southeastern part of the state, specifically requested that his will would remain sealed until after his funeral and burial. It was further specified his executor should gather all of the guest registers (the books that the mourners sign) from the funeral home and the church and deliver them to his lawyer’s office. Valstad’s Will and Testament, written in 2017, contained two secrets. One, that he had obviously saved up a small fortune and, two, he was serious about thanking those who he loved in his life.

I’m betting Dennis laughed his way to heaven – he was a devout believer – and that God got a huge kick out of this particular caper. I have always held the notion the very best gifts are those where the recipient has no idea of what’s coming, no way to find out where it came from, and will marvel for days trying to figure which friend is responsible for it, or will simply accept that it is a God Thing provided by the angels who move among us.

When the Will of Dennis Valstad was opened and read, it included this directive:

“No. 5 -- "The sum of $500,000 to be divided equally to the individuals that attend my funeral. Attendance shall be determined by the names on the visitation book or where attendance can be documented by some form of reliable documentation."

According to Julie Maslowski, an attorney handling the estate, each person will receive a check for showing up. All you had to do to be included for what now appears to be $1,872 was your presence. If a couple attended, they each got a letter and will each get a check. One couple stopped at the funeral with three children in tow. That's five checks. Everybody in the room – pastor, organists, servers, funeral home employees – everybody gets a check. If you do not want to accept the “Thank You Notes,” please contact Julie Maslowski with the name of your favorite charity.

And the lesson: Always sign the guest book.

* * *

Our second lesson from this weekend comes in the form of an obituary that appeared in the Erie (Penn.) Times-News last Thursday (Oct. 3, 2019). The obit was actually written by Ashley Kuzma, a 32-year-old school teacher “preceding her passing as part of the many preparations to make the transition easier on her family.”

It was her wish that we should know her pain on this earth has ended but, far more importantly, "My wish for you is to stop letting insignificant situations stress you out. Do what is important to you. Relax and enjoy the company of those around you. What do you value in your life? In the end, that's what matters," she wrote.

As her obituary went viral, Ashley’s younger sister, Kristen, told a reporter, “She prepared us in every way to try to make this as easy for us as possible, which makes it even harder to know she was dealing with that alone. She didn't talk about how hard it was and how much pain she was in and how many times she was in the ER throughout the process. She talked about just everything positive," said Kristen, adding, “She wanted to teach people and she wanted to carry her legacy, and I think she will do that for years to come."

ASHLEY ANN KUZMA: May 21, 1987 - Sept. 22, 2019

When you have recurrent laryngeal cancer that just won't take no for an answer, you have a lot of time to think about death. The good thing is I no longer have to worry about saving for retirement, paying off student loans, or trying not to get skin cancer! One positive outcome from having recurrent cancer was that it taught me to let go of the insignificant things and to just enjoy the people and places. After three recurrences, my body finally had enough and I passed away on Sunday, September 22, 2019 at The Cleveland Clinic.

I was born on May 21, 1987 in Beaver County, Pa. I grew up in Conway and attended Freedom Area High School (class of 2005). I earned a Bachelor's in History and Political Science from the University of Pittsburgh (class of 2009), where I also became a member of Kappa Delta Sorority. I completed my teaching certificate and Master of Education degree at Edinboro University of Pennsylvania. After I graduated high school, my family moved to Erie. While I spent a few years teaching in Lancaster County, I returned to Erie to plant my roots and became a gifted support teacher at McDowell Intermediate High School.

In my spare time, I enjoyed reading, cuddling with my cats, wine tasting, relaxing on my dad's boat, watching movies, golfing, decorating my house, watching football (go Steelers!), appreciating a good sunset, and watching TV shows like Grey's Anatomy, the original Will and Grace, and Friends. While in college I spent a semester abroad in London and was able to travel to Paris, France, Krakow, Poland (it had been a goal of mine to visit Auschwitz for many years), Milan, Venice, Florence, and Rome, Italy.

Some of my favorite family vacations include experiencing the awe of the Grand Canyon and enjoying the sun, sand, and family time on The Outer Banks. After I found out my cancer was back for the fourth time, I went to Mexico and saw Chichen Itza.

I am extremely grateful for the life that I lived. I was fortunate to have a loving family, supportive friends, a stable and meaningful job, and a house to call my own. My wish for you is to stop letting insignificant situations stress you out. Do what is important to you. Relax and enjoy the company of those around you. What do you value in your life! In the end, that's what matters.

I am survived by my wonderful parents … my sister … our family dog, Lizzy; my cats, Archie and Stella; my maternal grandmother … and many aunts, uncles, cousins, and many friends.

I was preceded in death by  … (family)  … my childhood cat of 18 years, Sammy; our beloved family dog of 17 years, Dylan; and my cat, Leo.

Since I think viewings are too sad for everyone, I requested that my family host a celebration of my life. Please join them on Sunday, October 13, 2019 … In lieu of flowers, please send donations to the Humane Society of Northwestern Pennsylvania (Erie Humane Society), Orphan Angels Cat Sanctuary & Adoption Center Erie, Pa., or Hope Lodge, Cleveland, Ohio.

* * *

“I guess it's not what you take when you leave this world behind you, it's what you leave behind you when you go.” – from the song, “Three Wooden Crosses” by Randy Travis, which was “The Song of the Year” in 2003 by both the CMA and Dove Awards. To hear the song, CLICK HERE. 

royexum@aol.com


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