Maybe it’s time to admit I read obituaries. I started reading them in 1985 or so because Laguna Beach, where I live, was in the full grip of the AIDS disaster. Every week I would hear that someone I knew, or barely knew, was suffering and then a few months later he would die. It was always “he” back then. Perhaps I was morbidly curious, but it was interesting to find out more about people: where they were born, how old they were, what they had done with their lives before AIDS struck them. No one seems to die of AIDS anymore, at least not in the paper.
I also used to read the obituaries for business reasons. I owned my own bail bond agency for a number of years. Once in a while a client would jump bail, thus endangering my pocket book and the finances of the person who had guaranteed the bond. People out on bond are often angry, they lead chaotic lives, they drink and do drugs, they fight, creating mayhem for themselves and those around them. They die more often than you might realize. The people who sign on the bonds are usually parents, grandparents, employers – older people who have good credit and own property. The obituaries would alert me if one of my clients or guarantors had died and my bond was in financial danger.
If a defendant on bail fails to appear in court as ordered, the bond is forfeited. The bail bondsman (me) must pay the court the full amount of the bond within six months if the fugitive can’t be found and returned to justice. If the defendant dies, he – almost always a “he” – will naturally not be able to make the court appearance. The bond doesn’t have to be paid if you can prove the death to the court within the allotted time.
Now here’s the odd part: Fugitives tend to be sentimental. Like all of us, they want to be loved. So, when I would pursue a fugitive, if I had read that Grandma or Grandpa died, for example, there was a good chance that my rascal would go to the funeral. Or he might show up at the family dinner table on holidays. Thanksgiving was a favorite, Christmas seemed to be too risky, even for dimwits. I didn’t pursue bail jumpers myself, I hired a private investigator, also known as a bounty hunter. My favorite private investigator was an Apache Indian by the name of Robert Redfeather. He called himself an “urban tracker.” He knew how to blend into almost any crowd. He never used a gun as far as I could tell. So, if he had to capture someone for me I always felt easy, knowing he would be respectful of his prey. Picking up a fugitive at a funeral is tricky, you don’t want to create a fuss. Redfeather would separate him from the group, handcuff him, escort him to the car, help him into the back seat and deliver him to the appropriate jail with the paperwork. Smooth.
Many years later, I still read obituaries. A Los Angeles Times obituary is paid for by the word, it can get expensive. Certain groups of people appear in the obituaries out of proportion to the general population, Jewish and Japanese for instance. World War II veterans are legion these days. Sometimes the obit for a Japanese person will remark on which relocation camp the deceased was sent for the duration of World War II. Religious people note how devout a person was. Business people are noted for their various successes and to which university or charity the reader may donate. The cause of death may be mentioned or in some cases, avoided. “Ms. Doe died suddenly at age 18” can mean a traffic accident, drug problem, suicide – the family doesn’t want you to know. My favorite obituary read, “Mrs. X survived the holocaust and died peacefully 66 years after Hitler intended.”
Joyce Farmer is best known for co-creating the Tits ‘n Clits comics anthology in the 1970s. Her graphic memoir Special Exits was a Fall 2010 release from Fantagraphics Books. She lives in Laguna Beach, CA.