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What will people say about you at your funeral?

Mark Andrew Junkin Published on 30 September 2015
king on throne illustration

I once dealt with an 82-year-old man who drove into town – without a license – and changed his will just to prove he still mattered.

Harold had asked his son to carry a sack of potatoes into the basement the afternoon the son was dealing with a combine breakdown mid-harvest, and Harold felt put off that his son didn’t make it a priority.



For Harold, growing potatoes in his garden was his pride and one of the few things on the farm he could do for his family as his body gave out. Harold was a narcissist (self-centered man), and when he felt he was sidelined by his son not doing what he ordered him to, Harold changed the will just to prove that he was still in control.

The 59-year-old son, Jake, was shocked to find out that suddenly he owned nothing and the farm which he had grown substantially over his 40-year farming career now belonged to his gay brother in Toronto who didn’t know a cow from a sow.

After Jake’s wife received a strange phone call, the neighbors found a suicide note on the kitchen table and Jake lying with a loaded shotgun in the woods contemplating life.

For the past decade, all the king’s horses and all the king’s men had been on that farm trying to convince Grandpa to do estate planning.

It was driving Jake crazy that every day his father was threatening to change the will if his every whim wasn’t met, and he finally snapped. Calling me in to mediate was a “Hail Mary pass.” Harold said, “It’s all in the will, why bother with such nonsense?”


“Why don’t you just take me behind the barn and shoot me? Then you’ll have the estate plan set in motion,” he said when folks pushed him. Harold’s name was on the side of the barn, and it was going to remain his kingdom until the day he died.

This is a true story. The story was much more detailed than that … but the neighbors don’t need any further clues to guess who it was. What matters is how we solved the problem, and how you can, too.

I asked Harold, “What would folks say at your son’s funeral?” There was a very long pause, and then he said, “That he was a good man, I guess.” He looked at me, confused, as if he had no other words to say.

I said, “I haven’t even met the man, but your daughters have told me more than that, and I could give a better eulogy than you just did. Come on, Harold, what would they say at the funeral?”

It was like drawing blood from a stone to get him to provide compliments for his son. Then he said, “Why, what do you think they’d say?” I said, “It doesn’t matter what they say in the eulogy; the whole community would say in private that you were the jackass that drove his son crazy and caused his son to kill himself.”

I waited a solid minute for that to sink in.


Then I said, “Then what would folks say about you at your funeral?”

“That I was a good man, I guess.”

I said: “Well, that is what folks would have said about you five years ago. Folks would have said that you raised seven amazing kids, were one of the best farmers in the township and a real community man. That would have been your funeral had you died of that stroke two years ago."

"But had he pulled that trigger yesterday, nobody, including your kids, would come to your funeral, and everyone would say you were the jackass that got his son killed. And if I leave here without getting some things changed, I know that a couple of your daughters aren’t going to come to your funeral, if anyone does.”

After a long pause, I said: “What do you think the problem is?”

He went on about the estate planning, and how his son was crazy, for a five-minute rant.

I said, “Harold, those are problems, but the real problem is that you aren’t thinking about the future. What the real problem is, is that you aren’t thinking about your legacy; you are only thinking about the here and now. You are griping about your aches and pains and pulling childish stunts just to prove to yourself that you still matter."

"You’ve lived an amazing life, but the only thing your kids will remember about you is an old man acting like a spoiled child and a jackass. You’ve got to think about your legacy and how you’ll be remembered.”

Harold was a narcissist. For those who don’t know what that means, it essentially means a grown man acting like a spoiled child, only concerned about his own needs. Harold’s wife served him hand and foot, which after his stroke had become almost like slavery.

Over the years of farming, if Harold said jump, everyone ranging from feed salesmen to hired men said, “How high?” He was king of his little fiefdom. He was used to people doing as he said, and when it didn’t happen to his liking, he had become like a spoiled child throwing temper tantrums.

Harold had grown used to being the center of attention. When his efforts in the garden weren’t the center of the farm’s attention, and his son didn’t have time to take a bag of potatoes into the basement (they had a combine breakdown), Harold felt sidelined.

Dying sucks. For men who were used to being powerful, to become powerless is a tough thing to endure. Many successful men do screwball things to avoid it. Succession planning brings out the best of these crazy stunts by what were very rational, level-headed men.

For instance, many men feel that by failing to make funeral arrangements or doing a good job with estate planning, the Lord will keep them on earth in order to get family affairs sorted out. It sounds strange, but I’ve honestly lost track of how many times I see this happen.

But the key when dealing with men having problems with their fear of death isn’t to deal with the ancillary issues like estate planning but the long-term vision of legacy.

If you are a son or daughter struggling with an elderly parent who doesn’t want to talk about the future because they fear the next five years, the key question to ask them is this: How are you going to be remembered after your death, and is your life’s work going to still be standing in 30 years’ time?

How many barns in your township are now falling down because of poor estate planning? In my township, there is a falling-apart barn with a man’s name on the side of it. The reason why that farm fell apart can be heavily attributed to having the farmer’s name on the side of the barn – and not his son’s.

The farm was Dad’s kingdom, and he controlled every little aspect to the grave. He didn’t let his son make the improvements necessary to keep the farm expanding because Dad felt like semi-retirement was better than not considering the needs of his son or grandchildren.

He didn’t think much about whether the family farm was continuing 50 years down the road. What is the sense in a farmer working his entire life to build an empire only to have it fall apart 30 years down the road? What a wasted life!

A marathon race is 26 miles. What is the sense in a marathon runner running 25 miles only to cave and give up in the last 100 yards? Doing so is foolish. Sure, your body is giving out in the last few miles of that marathon, but it’s a matter of finishing the race with dignity.

The same is with being a farmer and dying with dignity. Sure, you could pull short-term stunts like changing the will and causing family drama, to prove you still are powerful. But then, who is going to attend your funeral and who is going to say good things about you five years after your funeral?

If the farm’s management is controlled by your every whim, then who is going to be a capable successor to continue the farm for the next 30 years? How would it make you feel to come back in 30 years’ time to see the hated neighbors down the road running their equipment over your land because you didn’t set things up to succeed?

It’s time to shift from a short-term mindset of fighting for power to creating a powerful everlasting legacy.  PD

Mark Andrew Junkin improves how farm families make decisions together in the years prior to farm succession. Get his book, Farming with Family: Ain’t Always Easy! at his website or call at (800) 474-2057.

ILLUSTRATION: Illustration by Corey Lewis.

Mark Andrew Junkin