Life

The Viral ‘Uncle Bunky’ Obituary Writer Discusses His Legendary Uncle And Mourning In The COVID Era

The internet so often seems like a perpetual nightmare machine these days, a place to hear the worst news about the worst people, that it’s hard to remember a time when it was also a place to make jokes, share stories, and connect with strangers. But every now and then something allows us to recapture that old early-internet optimism.

In the days before the George Floyd video, Chris Santa Maria’s obituary for his uncle, Randall Jacobs, aka Uncle Bunky, was just such a moment. It originally ran in the print version of the Arizona Republic a few weeks back, then a picture of it hit Reddit, spread to a few Instagram accounts, and sort of took off from there. My own share (I thought I was embedding the Tweet above, where I first saw it) is now pushing 60,000 likes on Twitter. I had to mute notifications.

The extent to which Uncle Bunky’s obit became a phenomenon was surprising, but also understandable. It’s not often you get misty-eyed reading something on the internet about a total stranger. From “save it, clown” to his nicknames for his nephews — “mud flap” and “style master” — the persona that Santa Maria’s writing conjured seemed to hit all our collective sweet spots: Dad Humor, Cat Dads, Inappropriate Uncles, and the legendarily incorrigible ne’er do well. Santa Maria’s vision of Bunky also echoed beloved pop culture figures from Uncle Buck and Royal Tenenbaum to all manner of Bill Murray characters, Bill Brasky, and the meme version of Chuck Norris (who’s hard to square with the real Chuck Norris, an asshole, which is basically the old internet/new internet divide in a nutshell).

In part, Uncle Bunky was a funny meme that reminded us of other funny memes, but it was also something of a stand-in for our own departed family members — an example of how to mourn at a time when so many of us have been unable to gather for funerals. We wanted to live more like Uncle Bunky and grieve more like his nephew. For a moment we all became Royal Tenenbaum, staring at a headstone saying, “Hell of a damn grave. Wish it were mine.”

I wanted to find out if there was more to this story, and, let’s be honest, hear more Uncle Bunky stories. So I spoke to Santa Maria this week.

[The black and white photo of Jacobs in the feature image was taken by Jacobs’ friend Scott Hile.]

So, just to get the factual stuff out of the way, could I get your name, age, occupation — the basics?

My name is Chris Santa Maria. I’m 38 years old. I am the director of an art gallery in Chelsea in Manhattan, but I’m also a visual artist with a studio practice in Brooklyn.

And you wrote the obit.

I wrote the obit. I did have a lot of help from a friend of mine, Mark Sussman, who is a brilliant writer, an academic, and a scholar in American literature. And he actually met Uncle Bunky once in Scottsdale in one of these strip mall sports bars maybe a year and a half ago. So my first draft… it was actually a little too “turnt.” It was pretty wild. I actually sent it to two friends who knew my uncle better than Mark, and they were like, “Dude, this is perfect, but what do you expect? Do you think this is going to go in the Arizona Republic, or are you just going to post this on Twitter?”

And I was like, “No, I was going to submit this to the paper.” And they said, “Uh maybe you should tone it down a little bit.” My friend, Mark, he gutted that stuff out, and, like all good editors, he made better decisions for me in the end. So it was a collaborative effort in a lot of ways.

Did the rest of the family come to you to write it?

I think it was an unspoken thing. Everybody knew I was going to write the obituary because I was the closest to him. When he passed, my mother was dealing with some stuff with the morgue that was handling his body and she asked me all the questions, like, “What do you think that he would want done?”

And he was not the kind of person that would want some drawn-out pageantry of a funeral, where people got up and spoke and stuff like that. He would not have been cool with that. So in a way, because COVID is going on right now, and nobody can really meet together, it was kind of perfect because we didn’t have to go through all that garbage.

Before, when I went to go visit him in Arizona for the last time, he was pretty serious about knowing that he was at the end of his rope. I had already started thinking about some of these things and taking stock in some of the memories, all of these little meaningful interactions, things that he had said to me or others that I had witnessed, I started to subconsciously collect those things. It also felt very morbid for me to think about before he passed away. So I just kind of stopped thinking about that stuff and went home and spent some quality time with him and paid my respects. After he passed away, all of that stuff came flooding back to the front of my brain. When I found out, it was like everything just dropped, you know?

Yeah.

It was just really intense, even though I was prepared for it. That night, I just… I don’t know if you’ve seen that movie Mandy with Nicholas Cage. There’s a scene where he finds out his wife’s been killed, and he goes into his bathroom, and he finds a bottle of vodka, and he just starts drinking it, and he’s screaming. I was taking pulls off of a bottle of Tito’s because that’s the last bottle that I had given him when I went. Before I left, I gave him two packs of the trashiest 100 cigarettes and a bottle of Tito’s and said goodbye. So that night I hammered out a bunch of these stories and then woke up the next day and started to actually edit.

Some of his friends, childhood friends, they’re like kind of trailer trash burnouts. And they’re like, “Man, I really wish that I would have written down some of those stories.” “Man, your uncle R.J. was fucking nuts, dude. He did this and blah blah blah…”

And these guys are like, “Man, I wish I just would have written it all down, but I can’t remember it all.” So I started to do that, and it was very helpful for me in the grieving process, just to kind of get it all out.

Are any family members jealous that you were the one to get to write the viral obituary?

No, not at all. I mean, I ran the obituary by all of my family members just to make sure I wasn’t missing anything. They were all like, “Man, you nailed it, dude.”

Once it started going, I heard about the Reddit post from my brother, who’s not even close to being extremely online. He had a friend that was on Reddit that shared it with him. So I heard about it from my brother, Jason, who is an ex-Marine and lives a pretty simple lifestyle in Tempe. And for it to get to him before it got to me was crazy. Because I would consider myself having way too many hours spent just scrolling my feed. So that was crazy.

So Bunky was your mom’s brother?

Exactly.

What was his actual job?

He went from odds and ends and other jobs and mostly kind of construction stuff. When he was living in Telluride, he was working in a couple of restaurants, doing some construction and handyman stuff. When I was in fourth grade, he needed to crash with my folks for a little while, and that’s that summer that he did a lot of that crazy shit because I was around him all the time. And this was when my parents weren’t there because they’d be off at work. I remember that that summer he needed to get a job, because my dad was getting more and more aggravated with him kind of hanging around the house and drinking and being totally like the opposite of a parental figure. And so he was like the “good” guy, he’d let us do whatever we wanted, but my parents obviously had to raise us, and they had to be adults about it, so there was some tension there. And I remember he was like, “I need to go get a job.”

So he got a job at a construction site. But he’d never done carpentry work before, so he just went to Home Depot and bought a brand new tool belt. He tied it to the back of his car, and drove it around in the desert, so it looked like he had been working in construction for years. So he just showed up to a job site with this worn-out construction belt, and they hired him. And he came back, and he was like, “Yeah, I was working today, and then I started to hammer these two by fours together. And somebody looked over at me and like, ‘Man, you’ve never fucking done this before. Have you?”

So he didn’t keep that job for very long. He kind of just … He really bounced around a lot.

What do his siblings do?

His older brother, his name is Larry Jacobs, and… I don’t know if he’s still a NASCAR mechanic, but he lives in North Carolina, like Morrisville and Asheville. It’s very NASCAR culture over there and he’s been working for NASCAR teams for quite a while. My mom still lives in Scottsdale, and she’s retired, but she was a cashier at a grocery store for my whole childhood.

So how did Bunky die?

So he made a joke about, “If COVID gets in my body, there’s no f*cking way it’s going to make it out alive.”

So he claimed that he got sick with COVID, and he was like, “Oh, I’ve got the great grawdoo, man. I’m going down. This f*cking sh*t’s taking me.”

He could have had it. We’re still waiting for the test to come back. But to me, Uncle Bunky killed Uncle Bunky. His life caught up with him. It’s like a combination of all of that stuff catching up with him, which in a way is a very self-destructive lifestyle. I mean, if you’re doing a ton of drugs and drinking and smoking and just going pedal to the metal every single day, it’s going to catch up with you. That’s not technically a suicide, but at the same time, you’re running all the way in.

So you guys weren’t able to have a funeral because of COVID?

Yeah. I mean, I don’t think we were going to do anything. Even if it was possible to get together, I actually don’t even know what that would’ve looked like. He had a lot of friends, and I’ve spoken to some of those guys in the past couple of weeks, and they’re all trying to figure out what to do. We’re basically going to take a portion of his ashes and bury them with my grandmother, his mother. She’s still around. She’s in an Alzheimer’s home in Arizona. But the plan is to keep those ashes together, and then also to give some of them to me, so when I go to Telluride, the next time I can spread them on certain parts of the mountain that were very meaningful for me and my relationship with him there.

Was he ever married?

He was married when I was very young. He married this woman, my aunt at the time, Teresa. And they lived in Anaheim. That was awesome, because we would go visit him and he would take us to Disneyland. I remember her being… as a young boy, I thought she was like super hot. She was wild and crazy. But that lasted a very short amount of time. So, the joke is that if there’s some kids out there that are Uncle Bunky’s, then we don’t know about it.

You told a couple of his stories. What was the shotgun one?

This is, again, before my parents had gotten home. He had this ’70s era Buick LeSabre. Such a piece of shit. It’s funny because he had that car before the movie Uncle Buck came out. And so, John Candy rolling around in this car that backfires– we saw that movie, and we were like, “Oh, my God, the parallels here are too spooky.”

So, it was just a piece of shit car. The backseat was one big pleather couch, no seat belts. And he would drive that thing around with us, and me and my two younger brothers, we’d spill around like rocks in a cement mixer. It was so much fun. So, one day, he goes, “Hey, Chris, let me show you something.”

He opens up his trunk, and he pulls out a sawed-off shotgun. I had been around guns because I’m from Arizona. So I grew up shooting 22’s when I was really young. And I think by the time I was 13 or 14, I had fired off an AK-47 with an 80 round pancake clip. So, I’m in Arizona and there’s a lot of fucking weird, crazy dudes out there with some munitions, but I had never seen a sawed-off shotgun. He said that it was “hot,” and I had no idea what that meant. And then he said, “I got to get rid of this thing.”

When he got rid of it, that was a few days later. I was like, “How’d you get rid of it?” He’s like, “Well, I was on a construction site, and we were building a fence, so when we dug the hole, we just threw it in there and filled it up with concrete.”

But he kept a couple of the buckshot shells. We took apart the shells and poured the gunpowder on my dad’s driveway. And he goes, “All right, step back or you’re going to burn your eyebrows off.” And then he just lit it. And this is happening while he’s got a cassette tape of Metallica’s Ride the Lightning playing in the car. My dad was so fucking pissed, man.

And then he snuck you guys into a NASCAR pit. I guess the other NASCAR connection makes a little more sense now —

Yeah, so his brother was in town for a race that was at Phoenix International Raceway. We had the passes to get down to pit row. So we had a chance to walk across the runway and go into the pit with my uncles and hang out. But before that, we were going through this sort of like tailgate party. So we just snuck into there, and it’s like these tents, where just people are kind of hanging out and drinking beer and nibbling on food and stuff. And we just went absolutely fucking ape shit, shotgunning beers, taking stuff. And they were like, “Get the fuck out of here.”

And he’s like, “I thought this was America, man!” And we just left. Anytime you’re hanging out with Bunky, it was like an exhilarating, thrilling thing, but it was also frightening because you didn’t know what was going to happen. You didn’t know if he was going to push it a little too far, and someone was going to call the cops, or someone was going to get in a fight with us, or whatever. So, he was kind of reckless and bombastic in that sense. But at the same time, I can’t emphasize this enough, he had the sweetest, kindest heart. If he thought that he was upsetting me or my brothers or his nephews or his nieces, he was so sensitive. He never did anything that would be considered abusive. A lot of family members who have maybe substance abuse problems or they drink too much, they end up being terrible to be around, or they get to a point where it’s kind of scary to be around that person because you don’t know what they’re going to do to hurt you or hurt your friends or whatever, but he was just like on the absolute opposite end of that spectrum. So he’s kind of an anomaly.

What’s it been like, getting to relive Bunky’s stories with the world?

Oh, it’s so crazy. I really wish that he could see all this. Seeing all those comments and seeing how people were like, “Man, I really wish I could have burned one with Bunky.” Or, “I’m going to pour one out tonight. I wish I had an uncle that was like that.” Or, “I’m an uncle, and I’m going to try to be better and try to be more exciting and more memorable.” It was like this swirl of this positivity. It’s incredible, man.

It seems like the Internet found their new Chuck Norris in Bunky for a day or two.

My friend joked. He’s like, “This is going to be one of those things that gets shared every once in a while for the next couple of years.” And maybe it’ll go viral again in a year and a half or something, because someone just re-shared it. The Internet is funny like that.

I mean, there was something genuine about it that made it sweet and not just a novelty thing. I found the picture, and I was reading the obituary out loud to my fianceé, and I was almost crying by the end, just because it was so heartfelt —

Oh, thanks, Vince.

And it reminded me of the end of Royal Tenenbaums, where Royal Tenenbaum has the fake obituary on his tombstone.

That’s funny. That’s great. So I’m working with this beer company in Phoenix. We’re trying to come up with a name for a brew for Bunky. The guy who runs this brewery, he’s got kind of a philanthropic heart, and he’s trying to figure out a way in which we can help out some struggling dive bars. We talked about doing a poster that I would design, that would, it could go up in these dive bars and then someone may go, “Wait, what? Where’s my tab?” And they’re like, “Oh, no, man.” And they point to the poster and say, “Bunky paid for it.”

And so, the proceeds from the beer could go to helping these dive bars, just pay some of these people’s open tabs and stuff like that. Bunky had this bar in Telluride called O’Bannon’s, and I went there all the time. It was just kind of an old Irish pub, just had that stale, old beer on wood smell. That bar had a bell in it. And when someone rang it, it means that person buys a round for everybody on the house. So that kind of culture, man, that’s that was Bunky’s vibe.

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