George Bernard Shaw said “It is the deed that teaches, not the name we give it. Murder and capital punishment are not opposites that cancel each other out, but similars that breed their own kind.”
Last week I found an online list, originally published by the the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, listing the final meal requests of every person executed in Texas since 1982. It included some details, ostensibly overlooked by whomever typed the list, that I found astonishing. Scraps of insight, glossed over by the bureaucracy compiling them, that brought the reality of the night before a pre-described death into a sudden and inescapable emotional relief. A due date of mortality.
The original list was pulled down after complaints that it was tasteless, but I was lucky enough to find this video, created by facts from the same list, by graphic designer Mike Stanfill (a.k.a. Private Hand).
Vodpod videos no longer available.
It’s not the answers that astound me as much as the fact that the question is asked. Yet, in the study of its meaning, everything I read was continually pulled back to the act of the criminal. Their humanity overshadowed completely by their actions, and their condemnation too complete and final to allow for their final free choice to be studied with an open heart.
I understand the abhorrence of their crimes. But I can’t escape imagining how it would feel for this person, removed of all choice over their own destiny and about to have the ultimate decision, their own death, made for them, to in the end be given control over one last thing: their last meal.
We could assume that for the ones who put some effort into it that they’ve chosen their greatest pleasure. Imagining my choices, each one is tied to memory. The food is a physical manifestation of a psychological experience. It’s no coincidence that so many of them pick homefood.
Many go the stereotypical route and go all out. But some refuse it. And some others are so intriguing as to be undeniably tied to something within these condemned people that we’ll never know: Cool Whip and Cherries. An apple. A jar of pickles. A chocolate birthday cake with “2/23/90” written on top. These are not last acts of gluttony, a drive to be ridiculous in the face of all their unbelievable circumstances. These are sense memories. Opening the door to the past through the edible and olfactory. A final reaching for a shard, a sliver, of something they can’t put their hands on anymore.
But it was the entry for Delbert Teague Jr. where something inside me broke. In a sentence so unassuming and literal that it almost belied the meaning within. “To please his mother, he ate a cheeseburger.” And so I realized…his mother was there. Her son was about to be murdered by her government. And the only thing she could do, in the great nurturing act taken on by every mother, is to get her son to eat. Despite the fact he wouldn’t live long enough to digest it.
Besides being the only country in the Western World to still execute it’s own citizens, the United States is even pretty murderous in comparison with some of the most violent non-democracies in the world. In 2006, 90% of all known executions in the world were committed in just five countries: China, Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, and the United States.
Clearly, the U.S. isn’t exactly keeping esteemed company on the human rights front.
Not many of us will know, so chronically and succinctly or with such slow, impending certainty, the exact moment of our deaths. And very few of us will ever experience a moment where we know that we are about to make our very last decision. A lifetime distilled into one last desire. Food as both memory and epitaph. I wonder what these people feel when they order. I wonder even more what they feel when they’ve finished, and realize that truly there’s only one thing left for them to do.