When a Loved One Has a Serious Execution Date

by Karen Sebung

Over the years, I have had many requests for information relating to the day of execution and the weeks immediately before an execution. So after much thought I have decided to write an article on this depressing subject.

It isn’t something that any of us want to think about. But it is a reality for prisoners and their friends and families. If you find the subject too disturbing, please put the article to the side, in case you want to refer to it at a later time.

My first piece of advice is probably the most important. Prisoners, friends and family should talk about it LONG before a serious execution date is set. It is MUCH easier to talk about something that is uncertain and in the future. Often prisoners won’t bring it up for fear of upsetting their loved ones and loved ones don’t want to bring it up for fear of upsetting the prisoner. Loved ones shouldn’t make assumptions about what the prisoner will want. Often everyone works so hard to protect the other that, in the end, there is more hurt than necessary—and all of it is unintentional. Talk about the funeral, the burial details including whether it will be burial or cremation, where burial should occur, burial clothing, the financial aspects, who will get what property from the prisoner, etc.

At least 30 days before an execution, the prisoner will be moved to the death watch area of the prison. About 2 weeks before the execution, the prisoner will be asked for a list of witnesses to the execution. Witnesses MUST be on the prisoner’s visiting list. The prisoner will be asked to whom the body should be released. It might be prudent to check if TDCJ has the correct basic info—such as the prisoner’s current wife’s name. Although prisoners have lots on their minds during this time, I would encourage them to try to take good care of themselves physically. Eat, stay well-hydrated with fluids, exercise, continue to take daily vitamins if that is the usual routine. The high level of stress can cause the immune system to be compromised causing colds, etc. A prisoner doesn’t want to feel sick on top of all of the other stress.

Prisoners are allowed visits for the two full days immediately preceding the execution. This means that if the execution is scheduled for a Thursday, the full days of visitation will be on Monday and Tuesday. The prisoner is also allowed visits from 8 a.m. until approximately noon on the day of the execution. All of the visits take place at the Polunsky Unit for male prisoners and the Mountain View Unit for female prisoners. In the case of female prisoners, TDCJ will inform the prisoner where visits will take place so that family and friends are made aware.

Often prisoners (or family/friends) do not wish to use all of the visiting time allowed. Please communicate your wishes to each other. At this time, pen pals may show up unannounced. This is not a good time to let family members know that a prisoner has married, etc. Please try to take care of these types of matters in advance. Emotions run high for all parties at this time. I cannot repeat too often that open communication will help make this traumatic experience a little less stressful for all involved.

Sometimes family members who have never visited the prisoner will want to visit at the last minute. This is not unusual. While the prisoner’s wish should always be respected in this regard, I would encourage that amends be made with anyone who wishes to do so. It can be a time for healing and love.

After this last half-day visit, the prisoner will be transported to the Walls Unit in Huntsville. I would suggest that the family and friends take a while after the goodbyes to collect themselves before trying to drive. Then I suggest that everyone try to get some lunch in Livingston or on the road to Huntsville. Again, the purpose is to help everyone find some time to regain composure. And it is also good to try to maintain good eating habits during this time—although often you don’t feel like you can get any food down. Eat what you can and remember to drink plenty of fluids, especially during the summer months.

Who should witness an execution? This is a very personal decision. I will tell you that it is a difficult and traumatic experience. Persons who are not in good health—either physically or mentally—should not be witnesses. I think it is important that the prisoner have a loved one or at least a spiritual advisor present. If you don’t feel that you can handle witnessing the execution, please tell the prisoner. Witnessing will change your life forever. It is something that you will never be able to put out of your mind. But it is a wonderful gift if a loved one can continue to lend support at that critical moment.

Witnesses to the execution are to be called by the chaplaincy department in advance of the execution. This, however, does not always happen. Witnesses are required to be at the Hospitality House, 912 – 10th Street, Huntsville at 3 p.m. on the day of the execution. Chaplains from the Walls Unit will come to Hospitality House at that time to go over execution details with the witnesses. Chaplains are available on the day of execution to help loved ones communicate with officials both at the Polunsky Unit and at the Walls Unit if there are special needs and they stay with the witnesses through the execution.

Witnesses are required to be at the TDCJ administration building in front of the Walls by at least 5:15 p.m. A witness may bring someone along for support. This support person is allowed to stay in the first “holding area” with the witness—until just before 6 p.m. Witnesses can expect to be searched well by same-sex TDCJ staff. Witnesses are not allowed to bring anything except tissues and a photo ID—the ID is required. Media reps are always in the viewing area with the prisoners’ witnesses so anything that is said may be in tomorrow’s newspaper.

After the execution, a chaplain will go to the Hospitality House to brief the family on any details and may at that time deliver the prisoner’s property to his friends or family members.

The Huntsville Funeral Home is always the funeral home to remove the body from the Walls Unit. If loved ones wish to view the body right away, arrangements should be made with the Huntsville Funeral Home prior to the day of execution. (See their contact info below.) Some family members wish to have the opportunity to touch the body while it is still warm. Immediate viewing will facilitate that possibility. Loved ones should be prepared for the fact that the bodies quite often show discoloration after the execution. When viewing a body immediately after an execution, no preparation of the body will have been made. Family members may find this disturbing. There is no charge for viewing the body.

Families may choose to use the Huntsville Funeral Home or they may use a funeral home of their choice. If another funeral home is used, arrangements should be made prior to the day of execution. This allows the funeral home that is chosen to communicate with the Huntsville Funeral Home in advance. When another funeral home is used, the receiving funeral home may be at the Huntsville Funeral Home by 6:30.

Cost is often a big factor for loved ones. For this reason, I am going to share what I have learned over the years about all of this. Embalming is not necessary if the body is to be buried or cremated in a reasonable amount of time. It IS required if the body is being transported out-of-state. Cremation seems to be the least expensive route. However, burial can often be relatively inexpensive. I am going to give the contact info for three funeral homes. The first one is obvious. The second one, I have used several times for people and can attest to their honesty and compassion. The owner, Mr. Claire, is opposed to the death penalty and is a very compassionate man. The Hilliard Funeral Home has been used by several wives of prisoners and they report that they were VERY pleased with the services given. Be a good consumer and get quotes from several funeral homes before making a decision.

It is good for prisoners to make their wishes known. Often family and friends want to have a very elaborate casket and funeral—possibly to make up for what they were unable to do in the past. My personal opinion (and I stress that this is JUST my opinion) is that the body is just not the same when the spirit of life is gone. While we all want to treat the dead with respect, please do not allow someone to rip off family or friends at a time when they are very emotional and vulnerable.

OK. Here is the funeral home info. This information and price quotes are subject to change. And just FYI, neither the LHP nor I have any ties (financial or otherwise) to these establishments.

Huntsville Funeral Home
1215 15th Street
Huntsville, TX 77340-4508
Tel. 936-295-6363
Fax 936-295-9253
e-mail: hfhinc@cox-internet.com
website: www.huntsvillefuneralhome.com
I called to request cost info but my phone call was never returned.

Claire Brothers
7901 Hillcroft
Houston, TX
Tel 713-271-7250
Fax 713-776-1678
e-mail: funeral98@aol.com
Ask for Mr. James Claire. This funeral home will do a cremation for under $1,000. They will also do a burial in the Houston area for a similar amount—this does not include the cost of a cemetery plot. Please let them know that their services are required at an execution. They are very understanding.

Hilliard Funeral Home
386 N Maple Street
Van, TX 75790-3232
Tel. 903-963-8831
Fax: 903-963-8325
e-mail: melissa@hilliardfuneralhome.com
website: www.hilliardfuneralhome.com
Ask for Melissa.
Cremation costs $965 and includes picking up the body in Huntsville and bringing it to Van
There are additional charges for copies of the death certificate but the funeral home only charges what they are charged by Walker County. Again, please let them know that their services are required at an execution. They are very understanding.
For prices on burial in that area of Texas, please contact them directly

For more “do-it-yourself” types, you can provide your own casket. One family purchased a metal casket in Austin for $295 + tax.
3709 North IH-35
Austin, Texas 78722
Telephone 512-478-3755
Toll Free 1-800-390-7105
Mobile Phone 512-635-0056
The family may also choose to transport the body. It is important to keep in my mind that a body should be buried within 24 hours if it is not embalmed.

For those wishing to take ashes out of the country, please be aware that a death certificate will be required and that it can take several days (even weeks) for it to be processed. You will also need a document allowing you to transport the ashes—this may be obtained through the funeral home. Urns with ashes can also be shipped anywhere in the world by the funeral home.
If the prisoner wishes to be buried in the prison cemetery, TDCJ will pay all costs involved. The burial will be a graveside service at 8:30 a.m. on the day following the execution. Viewing may be arranged for the day of burial at 7:45 a.m. if the Huntsville Funeral Home is contacted in advance. TDCJ will provide a marker with the prisoner’s number on it. Prisoners who served in the armed services may have a marker placed through that avenue. Loved ones wishing to have a marker placed may do so by contacting the Huntsville Funeral Home for details.

In the weeks following the execution, family and friends should take good care of themselves physically and mentally. Exercise and practice good nutrition. Get support from family, friends and spiritual advisors. Be prepared to be affected for quite some time. Everyone handles the grief and trauma in a different way. There is no one right way. Don’t keep your emotions inside. Share them with someone you can trust. Don’t expect the ordeal to be over when the execution is complete—especially if you are a family member who has been dealing with related issues since the crime occurred. Give yourself time to grieve. But then know that this person who was executed would want you to continue living. That is the best memorial to your loved one.

The thoughts and opinions expressed in this piece are my own. I have double-checked all info pertaining to TDCJ. I have witnessed 3 executions and been involved with many more—unfortunately. About the only positive thing that I can say about the experiences is that it has enabled me to be helpful to others. I continue to be available to answer questions and run interference. Please let me know if there are any problems. Do not assume that TDCJ is causing a problem—even if you are told that they are causing the problem. I have found that TDCJ was blamed for a number of things that were actually the fault of the funeral home. If you contact me in advance, I will be happy to give you my cell phone number so that I can be available to you. I am a licensed family therapist in the state of Texas and qualified to lend professional support.

I would also be happy to follow up with witnesses immediately after the execution, as well as several weeks later. If this service is desired, I will need to know how to contact the witnesses.

Karen Sebung, The Lamp of Hope Project, P O Box 305, League City, TX 77574-0305, 281-334-6543, karen@lampofhope.org

I would also be happy to hear any comments or suggestions you have regarding the information contained in this article.

Special thanks for assistance with this article go to:

Janie Cockrell, TDCJ-ID Director
Debbie Liles, Administrative Director
Warden Jim Zeller, Polunsky Unit
Warden Neil Hodges, Huntsville Unit
TDCJ Chaplaincy Department
TDCJ-ID Plans and Operations Department
Huntsville Funeral Home

And as always, many thanks to Kathy Cleere, Ombudsman Coordinator, for her support and help in assuring the accuracy of the information in this article.

And a special thanks to the following death row families and friends who have endured an execution and shared information over the years:

Michael Sharp

Napoleon Beazley
James Moreland
Windell Broussard
Jonathan Nobles
Andrew Cantu
Jesse Patrick
Robert Carter
Steven Renfro
George Cordova
Larry Robison
Alvin Crane
Karla Faye Tucker
Jeff Dillingham
John Wheat
Gary Etheridge
Troy Farris
David Goff
Spencer Goodman
Leslie Gosch
Earl Heiselbetz
Jerry Hogue
Billy Hughes
Michael McBride
Glen McGinnis
Michael Moore