Date of Award

January 2013

Degree Type

Open Access Thesis

Document Type

Master Thesis

Degree Name

Master of Science (MS)


Justice Studies

First Advisor

Kevin I. Minor

Department Affiliation

Justice Studies


The United States has a rich history surrounding capital punishment, and execution rituals are central to this history. The death penalty regime has evolved from a primarily private-based justice system to the state-carceral capital punishment system we have today. This thesis uses three historical eras as the framework for analyzing methods of executions and the rituals that surround them. Throughout each period, rituality has helped cushion the revulsion that is inherently present when taking the life of a human being. If revulsion is not managed, the legitimacy of capital punishment can be questioned. The apex of the capital punishment legitimacy crisis in the US culminated in the Furman v. Georgia (1972) ruling decided in the middle of a 10 year moratorium on executions. In conjunction with the "super due process" ideology of the post-Gregg era, rituals bolster the palatability of state killing so that the institution of capital punishment is sustained. This thesis applies the theorization of Durkheim, Garfinkle, Goffman, Baudrillard, Bandura, Smith, LaChance, and Pratt to examine the social significance and impact of rituals, including last words, last rites, final visitations, final appeals, and last meals.

Offender-centered rituals have three interrelated functions: they humanize the condemned, promote a demeanor of submissiveness on the part of the condemned during the execution protocol, and infuse bureaucratically rational executions with emotion and meaning. Rituals work together to construct what is to be perceived as a solemn and just degradation ceremony. While each ritual has significance, this thesis focuses on last meals and how they function to cushion revulsion. This is important because last meals have received limited scholarly attention, and the approach that this study uses is unique. Last meals function to individualize and thereby humanize the condemned. This helps account for the media and public interest in the last meals ritual. This study establishes the importance of execution rituals across time. Implications are discussed for future research as well.