The Last Last Meal

Why abolishing the last meal is graceless.

Robert Dale Conklin's Bacon Wrapped Filet Mignon

Last week, following the execution of Lawrence Russell Brewer, Texas State Senator John Whitmire (D) contacted the head of the state prison agency to demand that the practice of allowing a prisoner to choose a last meal be ended immediately.

Ted Bundy's Steak and Eggs

Texas executes more people than any other state, and their death row process has been under scrutiny. For example, in 2004, Texas executed Cameron Todd Willingham for the murder by arson of his three daughters, which he almost certainly did not commit. Yet Governor Rick Perry, among others, have done their best to write off this wrongful execution as “business as usual” even though the Texas Fire Commission had ruled that the original evidence collected against Willingham was deeply flawed.

John Wayne Gacy had KFC

So why abolish the last meal? Well, part of the reason is that Brewer kind of made a mockery of the age-old tradition of the last meal–ordering

two chicken-fried steaks with gravy and sliced onions; a triple-patty bacon cheeseburger; a cheese omelet with ground beef, tomatoes, onions, bell peppers and jalapeños; a bowl of fried okra with ketchup; one pound of barbecued meat with half a loaf of white bread; three fajitas; a meat-lover’s pizza; one pint of Blue Bell Ice Cream; a slab of peanut-butter fudge with crushed peanuts; and three root beers.

and then not eating any of it, saying he wasn’t hungry. Plus, Brewer was totally unrepentant for his heinous crime, telling the local news: “as far as any regrets, no, I have no regrets. No, I’d do it all over again, to tell you the truth.” Perhaps his unrepentance was part of what irked Sen. Whitmire; perhaps, as Anne Emanuel says, it was a “diversionary” tactic to deflect attention from the sloppiness that seems to characterize Texas death row process.

Timothy McVeigh's Mint Chocolate Chip Ice Cream

But why abolish the last meal altogether? Florida, for example, grants its condemned a last meal of their choice, but ingredients must be purchased locally and cost no more than $40. Abolishing the last meal, to me, seems graceless.

I should come out and say that I think the death penalty itself needs to be abolished. The execution of Troy Davis on the same night as Brewer was a case in which an enormous amount of evidence pointed to Davis’ innocence, not unlike the Willingham case. But the truth is, I don’t think that Brewer–though unrepentant and guilty–should’ve been put to death either. There are a lot of reasons why I deplore execution, which I won’t go into here, but the simplest are these: I don’t believe anyone has the right to take what only God can give, and I believe that putting people to death–even guilty people–destroys the souls of those who do it. (It must be noted that the family of Brewer’s victim held a vigil for Brewer and opposed his execution to the end.)

So, obviously, for me, the last meal is a small issue beside the huge one of a consistent life ethic. But I find myself really bothered by the fact that Texas has chosen to end this ancient tradition because it strikes me as needlessly graceless. The last meal is, traditionally, an act of grace–often given along with the Sacraments, in fact. It’s an act of grace because, obviously, the last meal is gratuitous–the condemned having no “need” of nutrition in his or her final hours. And it is an act of grace because accepting food is a sign of trust and peace. (In Louisiana, the prison warden traditionally eats the last meal with the condemned. I can’t seem to contemplate this without tears in my eyes.)

Philip Workman declined a last meal for himself, asking instead for a vegetarian pizza to be given on his behalf to a homeless person. Prison officials denied his request, but it was carried out by others across the country.

The last meals that prisoners choose seem to say so much about them. A number of artists have even made projects of artfully portraying last meals. It seems to me that after years on death row with no dignity or chance to choose anything, the offer of a final meal of one’s choice is a glimmer of grace.

I wouldn’t have thought it possible that the Texas death row process could seem any more callous and graceless than it already does. But they’ve done it.

{For more about the death penalty, or to join the effort to end it, visit the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty website. For a moving account of a man sentenced to die for a crime he did not commit, I highly recommend The Thin Blue Linethe Errol Morris film that led to Randall Dale Adams’ exoneration. The book that convinced me that the death penalty needs to die is Dead Man Walking.}

6 thoughts on “The Last Last Meal

  1. I was just contemplating on the tradition of the last meal and wishing I knew more about it, so I’m pleased to read your thoughts here. Your description that the last meal is gratuitous and a gesture of grace is powerful. And what a testimony to grace that the Lousiana warden eats with the inmate. I’ve always agreed that no one should have to eat alone.

  2. Given my work in the prison, I had the opportunity to meet Burl Cain (the warden at Angola prison in Louisiana), walk the halls of death row at Angola, and even visit the execution chamber there. Not only does Cain eats his last meal with them, but holds their hand through the whole ordeal, continually talking with them even in the final moments and praying for them.What he has done to transform the whole culture at Angola (which has been known as the “bloodiest prison in America”) is amazing (http://www.amazon.com/Cains-Redemption-Dennis-Shere/dp/1881273245). He, however, largely attributes the transformation to the bible college he started there, which produces prison ministers that go on to serve the prison populations as ministers and chaplains (in Angola and other prisons in LA). We are hoping and praying we can see the same thing in Texas.

  3. That is an amazing story, Stephen. Thanks for sharing it. I’m thankful that Cain is doing this important work, although I guess that there is something that still seems terribly sad about this. If we can show such humane compassion, as Cain does, why can we not get beyond the need to put other humans to death?

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