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The Cruel Humour Of The 'Last Meal'

Why the state always gets the last laugh

The State has a wicked sense of humour. Just as the State is to rob you of your life, it provides the ultimate luxury. ‘The last meal’, eaten just before execution, is — if you’re unlucky enough to end up on death row — perhaps the best you’ll ever have. The excess associated with it is unparalleled: as much as you like of whatever you like, cooked in exactly the way you want it. There is not a menu on Earth that rivals it, and, often, not an expense too high to meet the demands of the condemned.

In ancient Greece, where the tradition originated, the hope was that if the condemned were fed they were less likely to return to Earth as a ghost. Less a charitable act than a hope to banish, the ‘last meal’ has remained ever since the State’s final act of petty cruelty.

In one sense, the last meal is completely unnecessary and somewhat paradoxical. Biologically speaking, food, which provides the energy for life, is nourishing a body that will soon be deprived of it. Often, those condemned aren’t particularly peckish either. A few hours until you’re stripped of your life, it’s easy to understand why. And so, in many cases, those who order their two T-bone steaks don’t touch them. In one case — the hanging of George W Barnett — a leftover steak was actually accidentally eaten by a reporter who found his way into the prison kitchen.

Yet, the ‘last meal’ is cruelly funny in a double sense. As well as paradoxically recognising human dignity just before taking it away, it also ritualises what is ultimately cold, impersonal, and inhumane. For the condemned, whose dignity has been systematically stripped away, it seems like a final concession to one’s right to the little freedoms that make us human. But really that’s not what’s happening at all.

In fact, the ‘last meal’ goes some way to normalise what is essentially socially accepted gangsterism. Depriving someone of their right to life is a big deal, and so portraying those condemned to it as irrevocably evil is vitally important to justify what is essentially murder. Providing a ‘last meal’ acts to portray the event as some quirky tradition, akin to dancing round the maypole, where the prisoner is presented as consenting to playing an equal to the State. Choosing a ‘last meal’ here constitutes a Faustian bargain — as one trades the right to one’s inner self for a passing luxury. 

And as much as it is a concession to your dignity, it’s also a way of selling your death to the public. Last meals aren’t shared only between the prisoner and the plate; they are, in fact, also for public consumption. Press stories follow executions, and the ‘last meal’ provides an opportunity to glimpse into the authentic ‘inner self’ of the condemned. Here, society engages in a cruel act of voyeurism, taking the last autonomous act of a free soul and twisting it into a 300-word narrative about someone we never knew.

Sometimes, people play along. Roger Casement, sentenced for organising the 1916 Irish Easter Rising, refused a last meal, instead opting for the Eucharist — a PR ploy if there ever was one. Lawrence Brewer Russell, meanwhile, requested: steak; fried okra; a triple bacon cheeseburger; three fajitas; a cheese omelette with ground beef, tomatoes, onions, bell peppers, and jalapenos; a meat-lover’s pizza; half a loaf of bread; Blue Bell ice cream; peanut butter fudge; and three root beers. In a final act of defiance, Russell refused it all — a last ‘f*ck you’ to the state that killed him. James Edward Smith, meanwhile, opted for a plate of dirt. In this case, unwilling to play the butt of the joke, the State refused the request.

Perhaps the best course of action is to take advantage nevertheless. Louis XVI chose a pan-fried chicken; pastries; boiled beef and pureed turnips; two chicken wings; vegetables; two glasses of wine cut with water; a piece of sponge cake; and a glass of Malaga wine. You can’t beat the State, so at the very least try to get your money’s worth.

Illustration by: Darcey Bateson

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