Writing About the Death Penalty

If you've read Death Becomes Us, you know that I communicated with two different men on death row. For my MFA thesis, I contacted Khristian Oliver to speak with someone who knew the day they were going to die. (That sounds horrible and callous, but I guess you'd have to read my book to understand.)


The second man, Larry Matthew Puckett, had the same spiritual adviser as Khristian and he asked if I'd also write to Matt. Matt wrote about his life on death row in Mississippi, as well as the men who were scheduled for execution. I agreed and we corresponded until he was executed in March of 2012.


I met Jamie Arpin-Ricci, one of Matt's other penpals, via Facebook and we have remained friends. (True tidbit...he designed my book's cover!) As a fellow writer who has tackled the difficult topic of the death penalty in America, I decided to invite him on the blog to talk about his book. So, welcome Jamie!

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Jamie Arpin-Ricci


Jamie Arpin-Ricci is an author, speaker, and community advocate living in the inner city of Winnipeg, Canada with his wife & two children. He is the pastor of Little Flowers Community, an inner city Mennonite church. He has written several books, including "The Last Verdict", “The Cost of Community: Jesus, St. Francis, & Life in the Kingdom”, “Vulnerable Faith: Missional Living in the Radical Way of St. Patrick”, and several other books.


What is your book, The Last Verdict, about?

"The Last Verdict" tells the story of two mothers whose lives collide because of a tragic murder- the mother of the victim and the mother of the man condemned for her death. The story follows their complicated and heart-wrenching pursuit of justice for their children.

What was the genesis of this book?

Several years ago I read a novel about death row. While I had long been ideologically opposed to the death penalty, the story touched something in me, pushing me to go deeper. I knew that I needed to personalize the topic. So I became pen pals with two men on death row. I chose one of the men, Matt Puckett, because we were born almost a month apart.

Matt and I soon became good friends, writing regularly about things such as justice, faith, reading, and life on death row. Through him I became friends with several of his family members, especially his mother, Mary. Before Matt was executed, I asked me to use my writing to try to change people's hearts and minds about capital punishment.

I struggled to know what to write for quite some time. However, through my continued friendship with Mary I began to be moved by her mothers heart. Aside from the ethics and politics of capital punishment, I realized that on both sides of a murder are people who deeply loved those involved. So I decided to write a story that helped people get a glimpse at both sides.

You mention with Matt that you reached out to him because of your closeness in age. Were you scared about communicating with someone on death row?

I suppose I should have been at least nervous, but to be honest, I wasn't. As my wife will tell you, I have an uncommon ease with reaching out to people who others might be afraid of. I was cautious, as I didn't know what to expect. The cynic in me wondered if they would be honest with me, so I was somewhat guarded. Matt quickly put me at ease.

What one thing about the death penalty would you want people to know. I ask this, as most people don't really know much about it, until it touches
them personally.

I think it is just that: It has to be personal for us to meaningfully engage on the issue. I've always said, if you are going to be for the death penalty, I hope you do so with a heavy heart knowing that we get it wrong so often, and even when we get it right, it harms innocent people. And if you are going to be against the death penalty, I hope you do so with a heavy heart knowing what that means to the victims family and friends. It shouldn't be easy, regardless of what side you take.

I would also say that we need to dismantle our binary "good guy vs. bad guy" mentality. We want our bad guys unredeemable and our good guys pure as the driven snow. Because we think in these terms, we all too often don't consider the potential for a wrongful conviction on a murder because the person has a record of abuse or crime. Matt was the first to admit to me that he was no angel before his arrest. Yet, too many people will use those things to write off the possibility of innocence. I wonder if we do this, in part, because to acknowledge that complexity means acknowledging that none of us are angels.

Do you still communicate with anyone on death row?

Yes. On the same day I began writing Matt, I chose another man to correspond with. Ron Smith is the only Canadian on US death row (in Montana). Ron never denied his guilt. So overwhelmed with grief over the brutal murder he committed while high, he requested the death penalty. While he received his sentence in 1983, he has been on death row ever since. It didn't take him long to change his mind about wanting to die. It is unlikely that Montana will ever follow through with his sentence. He's a very nice man.

Do you have any new books in the works?

I have a couple of projects on the go, including a coming-of-age novel and a progressive Christian theology book. Ideas are never in short supply, but with a 15 month old baby, time and energy are.

Thanks, Jamie, for taking the time to answer my questions!

If you'd like to reach out to Jamie...


If you, dear reader, would like to share your story on my blog, whether it's about working in a death profession or the death of a loved one, please contact me! Let's continue to keep the conversation flowing!

Also, don't be afraid to comment, ask questions, or like these posts. I don't bite.

An Interview with an Embalmer

Just as my book, Death Becomes Us, began with a rather nervous inquiry into the working life of an embalmer, I've decided to resuscitate my "Death Writer" blog by doing the same. Thankfully, almost ten years after that first interview with George Liese, I'm a lot less nervous. One might say I'm even death positive.

What is death positive you ask? Caitlin Doughty from the Order of the Good Death writes what it is not. You can read the article here.

For me, being death positive is a willingness to engage with the inevitable reality of death. What does that look like? Well, for me personally, it means not avoiding the topic or running away from someone when they are grieving, as this is my natural tendency. I think I'm not alone in that. I'm not an expert, so that's why I try to talk to those that are. With that said...

Today I have Amy Gagne on the blog.

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Amy Gagne

Amy Gagne is a licensed Funeral Director/Embalmer who graduated in 2004 from the Dallas Institute of Funeral Service. She was one of five recipients of the Key Memories Scholarship in 2004 for a paper she wrote on making a service more personal.  She has worked both as a funeral director and embalmer, currently focusing in the embalming side.  Amy has learned the key to success in this field is finding balance between family and work. 


What is your job at the funeral home?

I work for multiple funeral homes as a contract embalmer and most of what I do is self employed. There are about five facilities I currently embalm through.

What does your job entail?

I am on call 24 hours a day, unless I go on vacation or ask for a day off every now and then. The funeral home personnel do the transporting of the deceased to the funeral home. Then they call me when the family has chosen to give permission to embalm. Most of the time I only do embalming, but when asked I also do restorative work, fix people's hair, makeup, dressing, and casketing. Recently I've also been mentoring embalming apprentices who are currently going through the mortuary classes.

What got you interested in doing this job?

The idea of becoming a funeral director/embalmer wasn't ever something that I thought about till I was about 26.  One of my work colleague's told me I would make a good funeral director..... My initial response was, "A what?".  Although, from there he put me in touch with a funeral director he knew, who spoke with me about the funeral industry. It just so happened, a week later I learned another colleague I worked with did transport for that same funeral home.  I was able to get a part time job at that funeral home, and my career took off from there. 

What is the most challenging aspect of your job?

Being an embalmer can be emotionally difficult. It's especially so when there is a young person who passes, someone I know, or if they pass from some sort of accident or tragedy. Those situations can be brutal, but it is a reminder that if I feel that strongly, how are the family and friends of this individual handling this tough situation. 

What is the most rewarding aspect of your job?

My main job as an embalmer is to create an illusion. I know that sounds strange, but I see the reality of death when the deceased are brought into the prep room. So it is my mission for family and friends to see their loved one a last time without the effects of sickness, injuries, emaciation, jaundice...to the best of my abilities. If through this process I'm able to help a family or friend feel more at peace with a situation, or if by seeing their loved one helped with any part of a stage of grief, their possible solace is my reward. 

What do you wish people outside of the funeral industry knew about your job?

We try to always have two people when we pick the deceased up from the home. When the person is at a facility like a nursing home or a hospital, generally only one person goes. That can differ depending on the city and funeral home. Smaller cities will have one person going on calls most of the time. Larger cities have more staff and will usually send out two funeral personnel. When calls come in throughout the night, we are usually called from home to go on the call.  The exception again is large cities will usually have 24 hour staff. 

Anything unusual happen while on the job?

A situation that can startle you if you're not aware of it is after someone is pronounced dead, they can still have air remaining in the lungs.  When we roll them to place a sheet under them or sometimes just hitting a bump going down the road can release the air in the lungs, which hit the vocal chords, and they will make a noise. It happens sometimes. 

Are there hazardous conditions working with the deceased?

People who have airborne illnesses like Tuberculosis, flu, mumps, ...can still pass on viruses after they die if they have air in their lungs and it comes out. Granted some viruses last longer than others after someone passes. Tuberculosis is one of the hardier ones. Particles in the air can last up to four hours, but on a surface without direct sunlight it can last weeks to months depending what it's on. 

Do friends/and or family members ask you about your job? 

I have a mixture of both, but probably more people who are curious than not. Usually the main questions are, how do you do embalming? How does the process work? How do you embalm an autopsy? How long does it take? Then there are others who are interested in how to become a funeral director/embalmer and that varies depending on the state you are in. 

  Photo by:   Sarah Pflug

Photo by: Sarah Pflug

Lastly, you mentioned writing about making funerals more personal. What are some things family members can do?

Catering is becoming more common at visitations. A way to bring back memories of the person who passed away is family and friends using that persons recipes to bake cakes, cookies, appetizers, main dishes and bring to the visitation. They could use their place settings or table cloth they have in their home to set up the table.

You could bring a specific Scentsy smell, air fresheners, perfume, or cologne that is their smell, to place around or on them. 

Gift bags for the family and friends are a great thing to give out. They could contain recipe cards with some of the best foods they used to make; packets of their favorite coffees, or teas; baked goods from those recipes; their favorite candy; a picture of them; poems, quotes, or music that they like or have written; favorite flower... the list is endless when it comes to what to place in a gift bag. It all depends on the person.

An urn could be set up with a shirt they always wore underneath it on the table, with a picture progression of their life around it, or they could have their favorite banner or quilt along with it. 

There could be a bowl/basket with cut paper in it, which could be cut in squares, hearts, circles, any shape that works best, near the register book or casket, for people to write their last message to send with their loved one in the casket. . 

Videos using pictures are commonly used at visitations and services. To go a step further, if your able to get video footage of them talking about their life, playing sports, family gatherings, that could always be shown as well. 

Pallbearers can wear the normal boutonniere with their loved ones favorite flower, or they can wear one that has other things on it like a tiny rope , little cowboy hat, pink symbol for cancer awareness, military awareness, the many awareness symbols out there or any symbol that represents the person who passed.

The casket can be transported by hearse, or other means. It may have more meaning to be brought to the cemetery by horse and buggy, truck, big rig, escorted by motorcycles, or classic cars.

Capturing the essence of loved ones, sparks the memories of their life story. 

Thank you, Amy, for taking the time to answer my questions.

If you would like to share your story on my blog, whether it's about working in a death profession or the death of a loved one, please contact me!

Also, don't be afraid to comment or like these posts. I don't bite.