Photo by Library of Congress on Wikimedia Commons
Of all the records we have of what people were like in the past, death masks are perhaps the most macabre. This guide to death masks explains why they were made and who they were made for.
What is a death mask?
A death mask is an impression taken of the face of a person who has died, to preserve their likeness. They were used by the Ancient Egyptians and Romans and were still common in the 19th century.
Funerary masks, sometimes called burial masks, were normally made from wood or stucco. Higher-ranking people received ones made from gold or silver. The Ancient Egyptian funerary mask evolved into full-body inner-coffins that were placed inside sarcophagi.
The difference between a death mask and a funerary mask is that the latter was not a stylized version of a human face, but actually an impression of a specific individual.
Death masks were used to preserve likeness of many different people, from the great and good, to criminals. The invention of photography has now made them unnecessary, although they were still being made until the 1930s.
Roman death masks were not impressions of a person’s face, but were sculpted to resemble them. These masks were sometimes worn by an actor during a Roman funeral procession. This type of death mask was also popular from the Middle Ages until the 18th century.
Photo by Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art, New York City, on Wikimedia Commons (public domain)
In the 17th century, artists started making death masks by covering the person’s face in wax or clay and leaving it to set to produce a cast. The cast was removed from the person’s face and filled with plaster or bronze.
Who made deaths masks?
Many ancient cultures, including the Incas, Ancient Egyptians and Romans used death or funerary masks.
Some Ancient Egyptian death masks, such as that of Tutankamun, were portraits painted during their lifetimes that were attached to their coffins after they died.
Photo by Carsten Frenzl on Flickr
An alternative practice inspired by death masks, were life masks, made while the subject was still alive. Life masks were also made as a memorial to someone and generally involved a similar process. The only difference was ensuring that the subject was able to breathe!
The life mask of George Washington, made when he was 53 years old, has been used to recreate life-size models of him. Abraham Lincoln also had two life masks made for him; the first one was made shortly after he won the Republican nomination for the Presidency and the second one only a few months before he was assassinated.
The life mask of the famous Sauk warrior, Black Hawk ((Ma-ka-tai-me-she-kia-kiak) is on display in the Black Hawk State Historical Site in Illinois.
Photo by Bill Whittaker on Wikimedia Commons
Why were death masks made?
Ancient cultures, such as the Egyptians, made funerary masks to protect the person who had died in the afterlife.
Since the later Middle Ages, Europeans made death masks to preserve the likeness of the person. In the 16th century they were sometimes used as models for carving a relief of the person on their tomb.
Until the 20th century it remained common practice in the United States and Europe, especially France, to produce death masks for nobility and politicians. The death mask of Aaron Burr is kept by the New York Historical Society.
Photo by New York Historical Society on Wikimedia Commons
Since the 18th century death masks have been sought by practitioners of the pseudoscience ‘phrenology,’ which was based on the incorrect assumptions that the shape of a person’s skull determined their personality and intellect.
Death masks of notable figures, such as scientists and writers, were often made, however, phrenologists like Robert Noel were interested in trying to predict criminal behavior and studied the features of death masks taken from people hanged for crimes.
Famous criminals whose likenesses were preserved in death masks include Ned Kelly and John Dillinger. The mask of Dillinger's face was alledgedly made secretly, without permission from the FBI, in the mortuary after the gangster was killed in a police ambush.
Death masks were also made for more benign reasons, particularly as models for posthumous portraits or busts.
One of the most famous death masks in history is the Inconnue de la Seine (Unknown Woman of the Seine), sometimes called La Belle Italienne.
The body of a dead woman was rescued from the river Seine in Paris and displayed in the mortuary so that she could be claimed by someone who knew her. A pathologist in the mortuary was so enchanted by her beauty that he commissioned a death mask of her. It was displayed in the artist’s workshop and reproductions of it became popular pieces of art in the late 19th century.
Some people, including the Parisienne Police responsible for retrieving drowned people from the Seine, believe that the serene features and expression of the Inconnue de la Seine death mask are not compatible with drowning, which usually causes swelling accelerates decomposition.
Even if we will never know how it was made, the Inconnue de la Seine is perhaps one of the most important death masks in the world; it was the model for Rescusci-Anne, the standard CPR-doll used in first aid training.
Photos by gourami watcher (public domain) and Phil Parker on Wikimedia Commons
Who makes death masks now?
The popularity of death masks started to decline in the late 19th century and early 20th century. When Queen Victoria died her grandson, Kaiser Wilhelm II, Emperor of Germany, tried to have a death mask made for her, but was stopped by members of her British family who knew how much she disliked them.
The death mask of James Joyce, who died in 1946, is on display in the James Joyce Tower and Museum in Dublin.
Photo by Phil Parker on Wikimedia Commons
The invention of photography and the discreditation of phrenology have made death masks unnecessary for their primary purposes in western cultures.
Some artists do make masks of people who are still alive, which can be kept as a memorial after the model has died, but these are called life casts, and are often made of other body parts, such as hands.
Where can you find death masks now?
You can find collections of death masks on display in several museums. The Lawrence Hutton Collection of Life and Death Masks at Princeton University Library is the largest collection of death masks in the United States.
Death masks of criminals created for phrenological studies were often kept in the museums of medical schools, who also used the criminals bodies for their anatomical studies. The Phrenological Society of Edinburgh in Scotland amassed a collection of 2,000 death masks.
The British National Portrait Gallery in London keeps a collection of death masks, which includes impressions of Sir Isaac Newton, William Makepeace Thackeray and John Keats.
Many famous death masks are kept in private collections. In 2013 a death mask of Napoleon Bonaparte was sold at auction by Bonhams of London for £169,250 ($209329.25). The original copy of Napoleon's death mask was made of plaster.
Photo by Rama on Wikimedia Commons
If you enjoyed reading this explanation of death masks, there are lots of other interesting posts on the tradition and cultures of funerals on Funeral Guide’s blog post.