People everywhere have long been oddly fascinated by the last meals of those on death row, specifically wanting to know more about the last meal requests of notorious criminals, like convicted serial killers: Did these men request an elaborate meal, or did they opt for something nostalgic like a peanut butter and jelly sandwich or an order of KFC? Or, like Ted Bundy, did they refuse a last meal altogether?
But instead of looking at the last meals of specific prisoners, perhaps the focus should be on how this practice got started in the first place and how it’s changed over time.
One of the most well-recognized “last meals” is the last supper shared by Jesus Christ and his disciples before his crucifixion, as depicted in the Bible. In fact, the ritual of a doomed person eating some special kind of final meal goes back even further to pre-Christian times. A faculty publication from the Mercer University School of Law titled “Cold (Comfort?) Food: A Systematic Examination of the Rituals and Rights of the Last Meal” cites ancient Greece as the origin of this tradition. The Greeks would feed the prisoner before execution so that the deceased could enter the underworld and not return to earth as a hungry ghost.
In the paper, author Sarah Gerwig-Moore and her colleagues also write that in 18th-century Germany, a “Hangman’s Meal” was often held: Lawyers, judges, clergy, local dignitaries, and even the executioner would attend what was essentially a feast for the condemned. In Nuremberg, providing an entire roasted goose to the person set to be executed was an established part of this tradition. During the Hangman’s Meal, the condemned would participate in a scripted exchange in which they were told to seek forgiveness for their actions. The sharing of a meal between the condemned and those who had condemned them was symbolic, representing both forgiveness and acceptance.
In the same time period, in London, prisoners were allowed to hold a similar celebration with outside guests. On the day of the execution, the procession would stop at a pub for a customary “last refreshment in life.” These traditions could be seen both as a bittersweet celebration of life and an attempt to comfort someone facing death.
Later on, over in the United States, Puritans in Massachusetts held feasts for the condemned as a parallel of Jesus’ Last Supper with his disciples. So even though the “last meal” ritual may not have started with the Bible, the ongoing tradition in the U.S. does have some connection to the Last Supper recognized in Christianity.
Currently, 27 U.S. states continue to authorize capital punishment. This number has decreased over the years, with seven additional states having abolished the death penalty since 2009. Of the states that currently allow it, not all of them offer any special accommodations for a prisoner’s last meal, and those that do have some restrictions on what may be requested.
Back in 1985, Pizza Hut ran a commercial in which a prisoner sentenced to death orders Pizza Hut as his last meal. The prisoner in the commercial was pardoned at the last minute, but the ad was nevertheless particularly upsetting to viewers in South Carolina, where a man on death row had recently ordered pizza for his last meal before his execution. (The ad was later taken off the air in that state.) Frequent pop culture references to last meals, along with the widely reported last meals of infamous serial killers, might lead you to believe that anyone preparing for their last meal has free range to order whatever they want, but that’s not the case.
First off, spending limits exist in multiple states including Oklahoma, Florida, and Texas. Oklahoma procedure says that “Reasonable effort shall be made to accommodate the request, which shall not exceed $25.00.” In Florida, “to avoid extravagance,” the last meal requested by someone on death row cannot exceed $40 and must be available to buy locally. In Texas, last meals were offered until 2011, when a prisoner requested steak, fried okra, a triple bacon cheeseburger, three fajitas, an omelet, pizza, half a loaf of bread, Blue Bell ice cream, peanut butter fudge, and three root beers. The Marshall Project explains that the prisoner ended up not eating any of the food, and people speculated as to whether this was an act of rebellion or simply a lack of appetite due to nervousness. Either way, it led to Texas no longer accommodating last meal requests at all.
Aside from the monetary restrictions, other limitations on last meal requests keep it from being the full buffet experience often portrayed in fiction. Many prisons only honor requests for food that’s already available within the prison system, and will absolutely deny requests that include alcohol, tobacco, or other substances not normally allowed.
Whether or not people support or condemn the practice of the last meal (or the death penalty laws that lead to it), there’s no denying the custom has carried heavy significance since it began. And that significance has shifted over time: to go from a whole roasted goose to a strict $25 budget shows how drastically the meaning behind the meal has changed. A feast with guests in attendance can arguably be seen as a final celebration of life, but a supposedly “special” meal arranged with tons of rules, regulations, and restrictions, eaten alone without loved ones, sounds more like a reminder to the condemned of their societal position. Taking one last jab at their free will just seems cruel.
This ritual that has garnered people’s attention throughout history. But if the aim is to bring even a brief comfort to someone at the end of their life, perhaps the custom no longer serves the same purpose as it did historically. Many U.S. states continue to evaluate the death penalty and symptoms of its implementation. Abolishing the practice completely would mean we no longer have to make such strange choices about what a last meal can consist of.