A Good Day to Die

What 276 executions taught a death row chaplain about life

Non-Fiction - Memoir
302 Pages
Reviewed on 07/02/2024
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    Book Review

Reviewed by K.C. Finn for Readers' Favorite

A Good Day to Die is a work of non-fiction in the memoir, spirituality, and slice-of-life genres. It is best suited to adult readers owing to themes surrounding death, religion, and the afterlife. Author Carina Bergfeldt chronicles the incredible life experiences of chaplain Jim Brazzil, who accompanied 276 prisoners to their executions. As the last person these inmates see and the final touch they feel, Brazzil's mission has always been to guide them toward redemption and heaven. Now facing his own mortality, Brazzil reflects on the profound insights and confessions he has encountered in death's waiting room, preparing for his final confession.

Author Carina Bergfeldt has a natural gift for empathy and shows a strong sense of respect for the subject matter when crafting this deeply moving and contemplative read. The portrayal of Jim Brazzil's role as a death row chaplain was both wrenching and inspiring. I felt a profound respect for his unwavering commitment to offering solace and spiritual guidance to those at the end of their lives, largely thanks to the way the author gently celebrates him but also shows him from every angle. The narrative builds slowly but with a compelling tone, and the portrayal of intimate confessions and moments of humanity shared in the eleventh hour were suitably nuanced and complex, yet easy to follow. As Brazzil faces his impending death, his reflections offer a poignant reminder of the importance of compassion, forgiveness, and redemption, a message we can all learn from. This is a book that prompts its readers to think deeply about the value of life, the possibility of transformation even in the darkest moments, and the enduring power of faith and grace, yet it is offered so gently and comfortingly from cover to cover. Overall, A Good Day to Die is a must-read for anyone interested in extraordinary people, mortality, and faith.

Viga Boland

Have you ever wondered what a convicted murderer awaiting lethal injection or the electric chair thinks in his/her last few days/hours? How does the chaplain who is with them feel? And what about the victims’ families who come to watch that final execution? Carina Bergfeldt gives readers unforgettable insights into all those areas in her memoir, A Good Day to Die. And most unusually, this book is the memoir of two people: Carina herself and Chaplain Jim Brazzil who has listened to the final words and admissions of 276 death row inmates. The primary memoir is that of Jim Brazzil whom we come to know, warts and all, as Carina questions him about his reasons for becoming a pastor in the first place and how he ultimately ended up working in “The Walls Unit” of the Huntsville, Texas prison that carries out the State’s executions.

The reason I stated this book is almost a double memoir is that while Carina Bergfeldt is questioning Jim, his answers often trigger her to question her feelings about what has happened in her troubled past. It’s a bit like reading two stories in one book. But it’s what we learn through Jim’s experiences that is most eye-opening and riveting. Images of how a body twitches after electrocution are hard to erase, as are the many brutal, senseless murders committed by these people. My jaw dropped open time and again as Jim described the many horrific crimes committed by these condemned inmates. But what surprised me most was the great number of them who accepted that they deserved to be executed for their crimes, were even happy to die, and above all hoped they still had a chance to go to heaven. It was through talking with these people and giving them hope of salvation that Jim found his reward for his life’s work as a pastor. Jim also speaks of mediation wherein the perpetrator meets and speaks with a victim’s parent or partner face to face. It’s fascinating, almost unbelievable, how well that can ease the pain for both sides. If you are looking for a different kind of read, pick up A Good Day to Die. It’s quite unforgettable…and highly recommended.

Asher Syed

A Good Day to Die by Carina Bergfeldt chronicles the life of Jim Brazzil, a former chaplain in Texas who devoted himself to ministering to inmates on death row. He served in this role at the Walls Unit in Huntsville, Texas, engaging with hundreds of cases over his career. Brazzil's responsibilities included offering spiritual guidance, fulfilling last requests, and supporting prisoners through their final moments before execution. Despite personal reservations about capital punishment, he found fulfillment in providing comfort to inmates and facilitating reconciliation sessions between inmates and victims or their families. Through his journey, which included personal and spiritual transformations, Brazzil maneuvered through faith, forgiveness, and redemption in the context of the criminal justice system. His dedication continued even through personal challenges, reinforcing his belief in his calling until his retirement.

"I often say that justice is when you get what you deserve. Compassion is when you don’t get what you deserve. And mercy is when you get something you don’t deserve." In Carina Bergfeldt's A Good Day to Die, it is immediately clear that Brazzil's commitment to serving his community and his faith shines through even in his early pastoral work at a struggling church in Belton. Despite his young age and lack of formal qualifications, he wins over the congregation through his genuine care and dedication. The standout to me in this book is the intimate and detailed accounts of the inmates' lives and the events leading up to their executions. For instance, Karla Faye Tucker went from being the “Pickax Killer” to a born-again Christian, and the meaningful friendship over time with Brazzil evolved despite her past actions. The writing is clean and straightforward, the stories are exceptionally engrossing, and the message Bergfeldt spreads of Brazzil's life makes the book impossible to put down. Very highly recommended.