The Final Meal

Mats Bigert c/o Cabinet Magazine

What is the relationship between execution and consumption—between removing a life from the world and filling the condemned body one last time with food? In 1994, my art partner and I ran across a short article in a Swedish newspaper about the execution of the American serial killer John Wayne Gacy, Jr. The text ended with the words: “He also chose, as is customary, a last meal: fried shrimp, grilled chicken, French fries, and strawberries for dessert.” An everyday meal acquires a profoundly charged meaning when considered as the prelude to a lethal injection. 

My partner and I began to wonder about the contemporary and historical tradition of the last supper. Was the final meal fed to prisoners an act of humanitarian mercy, or the residue of religious ritual? And what were the implications of either scenario for, respectively, the condemned individual and the society responsible for that person’s death?

When my partner and I arrived to shoot in Thailand, we got in contact with Attah Youth, a former prison warden in the Bangkok “Hilton” Prison. He had long taken care of the prisoners the day before their execution, even going himself to the market to pick up whatever they had requested for their last suppers. Youth never had any second thoughts about his duties and never doubted the positive social effects of the death penalty. But he was meticulous when it came to procuring and preparing the food. Youth’s act of nurture was not so much a humane gesture as it was a protective action against the possibility of the executed coming back as hungry ghosts to haunt the living. In order to avoid this danger, Youth had to go to a Buddhist monk the day after an execution and offer the same meal to the monk, who would in turn send it on to the dead person on “the other side.” This way, the dead man’s soul would be satisfied and rest at peace.

The fear of hungry ghosts offers the most probable explanation of the last supper ritual. In funeral rites around the developing world, it remains very common to feed the corpse before burying or burning it. This food is intended to secure the safety of the deceased’s trip to the afterlife and to keep the ghost happy and quiet. Variants of this tradition can be observed in many different cultures. In Mexico, when the day of the dead is celebrated at the beginning of November each year, families bring excessive offerings of food to the burial sites of loved ones. And belief in the “dead among the living” structures the daily life of the Thai people; on almost every corner of Bangkok one can observe small shrines in which are presented simple offerings of candy and soda. 

The sacral root of all these traditions confers grace on the different practices, but also imbues them with vulnerability. For, while the last supper tradition may have multiple origins and meanings, its persistence is convention, not a legal stipulation. That is why it can also be eliminated, which is exactly what Texas did in 2011 after the execution of Lawrence Russell Brewer, guilty of the brutal murder of an African-American in 1998.

When asked what he wanted for his final meal, Brewer created a cornucopian dream menu: 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.

The day after the execution and Brewer’s dinner extravaganza (which he left untouched due to loss of appetite), Texas senator John Whitmire spoke angrily about the tradition: “It is extremely inappropriate to give a person sentenced to death such a privilege, one which the perpetrator did not provide to their victim.” He threatened to introduce legislation to end the tradition if the prisons did not comply. Brewer’s uneaten meal was to be the last last supper served in Texas. 

Some of the groups opposed to capital punishment were relieved about the change: “I am totally opposed to capital punishment, but I certainly don’t understand the logic of a last meal, and the way it’s turned into such a show,” said Jim Harrington, head of the Texas Civil Rights Project. Once the question of logic came into the debate, the argument for the meal was lost. The layers of compassion implicit in the practice proved to be inexorably fused with supernatural concerns for the well-being of the dead. Brian Price, who now runs a restaurant, vehemently opposed the movement to cancel the rite, offering to cook future last meals at his own expense. Texas Department of Criminal Justice spokesman Jason Clark demurred: “While we appreciate Mr. Price’s offer, it’s not the cost but more the concept that we’re moving away from.” 

Watch the film "The Last Supper."

This story is part of an ongoing partnership with Cabinet Magazine. Every month, the writing and editing team at Cabinet are producing article pertaining to our monthly Seminar Series, Homo Sapiens, I Hear You - a yearlong workshop analyzing human's essential needs and debating whether design solves those needs.

Our February workshop was on food and consumption.

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Mats Bigert is one half of the Swedish artist duo Bigert & Bergström. A retrospective of their work, “Eye of the Storm,” is currently on view at Artipelag, Sweden.