Death Masks: Origin, Process & Relevance Today

Updated

Though a death mask might sound like something people wear in haunted houses and on Halloween, it actually has an ancient history dating back through civilizations around the world.

A death mask, though it sounds sinister, is just a wax or plaster cast of a dead individual’s face. They have been used since the days of ancient Egypt, and they serve an important purpose in death rituals.

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Preserving the memory of the dead is an important part of death in different cultures. From ancient times to the past 100 years, death masks helped tell the story of those who died.

Though they might sound scary, death masks serve an important purpose within art, culture, and history. In this guide, we’ll reveal the origin, process, and relevance behind death masks. 

What Is a Death Mask? 

A death mask is a plaster or wax cast of a mold which is taken from the face of a deceased person. These are true portraits, and they were rarely altered. Sometimes they would be changed in small ways to make it appear like the subject was still alive, but this wasn’t always necessary. 

What’s the purpose of a death mask? Starting in ancient Egypt, these death masks were a way to aid sculptors and artists when making portraits of the deceased. The dead were to be honored, and it was common for many statues and busts to be made to respect the dead.

These weren’t just used in ancient Egypt. The concept quickly spread to other parts of the world, most notably across Europe. While they weren’t common for average folk, they were a way to memorialize the elite, such as kings, rulers, and famous artists. 

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Origin

As mentioned above, death masks first originated in ancient Egypt. When someone died, the body was mummified to keep it preserved. Preserving the body was the best way to ensure the soul had someone to return after death. Since the body was mummified, death masks were first and foremost a way for the dead to recognize their body and return to it. 

In ancient Egypt, death masks also guarded the deceased person’s spirit in the afterlife. It was believed that this spirit could face evil spirits and corruption, and the death mask is a form of protection. 

That being said, a death mask also had a more practical purpose. It aided artists and sculptors in creating realistic depictions of the deceased after they’ve been mummified. Since the human face changes in death and decomposes over time, the death mask was a way to keep this shape realistic. 

Purpose

While the death mask began as a way to keep evil spirits from the dead, the practical use was what spread across the globe. From the Middle Ages until the 20th century, death masks were models for sculptors and artists alike. 

In some cultures, like ancient Egypt, death masks were placed over the dead as a form of funerary art or burial rite. You’ve likely seen some of these masks from Egypt in particular, which are now featured in well-known museums. 

Overall, these masks were to assist with making statues and busts of the deceased. Later in their history, they became valuable in themselves as a memento of the deceased. This was particularly true for the more famous masks. Today, you’ll find these masks in museums, royal homes, and art collections.

How Are Death Masks Made?

Death masks are a unique art form. Though it might sound simple, there is a lot the caster would need to keep in mind in order to create a true likeness of the deceased. A physician was usually the one to make the plaster mold, despite this not being a medical practice. 

First, the mask would need to be made as soon after the death as possible. After death, the body naturally bloats and distorts the face. Getting the cask made is something that needed to happen within hours of death. 

To start, grease was applied to the face and any facial hair to prevent the hair from sticking to the plaster or wax. Next, plaster or wax bandages were layers on the face to capture the details. Several layers would be applied to strengthen the cast. While the drying process is quick today, it would have taken over an hour in centuries past. 

Finally, the mold is removed from the face. Wax or metal like bronze would be poured into the mold to create a three-dimensional death mask. These molds could last hundreds or even thousands of years.

Notable Death Masks

A lot of the most famous deaths in history are marked by death masks. You might be surprised to learn that these masks can still be seen today, and they’re often a part of private collections. To own a mask of a famous political figure or artist could be worth a pretty penny. 

While many death masks have been lost through time, we know of the following still existing today:

  • Ludwig van Beethoven: This German-born pianist and composer was cast after his death. 
  • Napoleon Bonaparte: The famous French politician’s mask was sold into a private collection for hundreds of thousands of dollars. 
  • Dante: This famous writer and philosopher died in 1320 of Malaria, and a cast of his face lives on today. 
  • Mary Queen of Scots: Though it took three tries to behead this outcast queen, her stoic face is memorialized in a lifelike cast. 
  • John Keats: Keats died of tuberculosis in 1821, and the famous poet is forever captured in his own death mask. 
  • James Dean: One of the most recent and well-known death masks is actually of James Dean, the famous 1950s actor who died at only 24 years old.
  • Benjamin Franklin: Benjamin Franklin’s death mask is one of the most easily recognized today. It’s been used to make an endless variety of artwork and statues in his honor. 
  • Tutankhamun: Finally, it would be difficult to make this list without naming one of the original recipients of a death mask. This young ancient Egyptian pharaoh died in 1323 BC, yet his death mask still lives on centuries later. 
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Do People Still Make Death Masks Today?

Though this might seem like a practice that’s been left in time, death masks are facing a recent resurgence in popularity. As more people reconsider our modern practices around grief and loss, old ideas are given new light. Artists are reclaiming this practice, not just for well-known celebrities, but also for everyday people. 

A death mask is a way to capture a moment that’s often hidden away from plain sight. A traditional death mask isn’t something that’s altered. It’s preserved, wrinkles and blemishes included. This real-life glimpse into the moment of death is something few people experience,, and artists are hoping to transform the way we think about death and dying. 

Modern death masks do away with older traditions. They’re made of unique materials, and they offer a new way of thinking about what happens to our bodies and our legacies when we die. You can see many of these new innovations in some of the best art exhibits in the world. 

What’s a Life Mask?

You can’t explore the world of death masks without also considering life masks. While death masks are casts taken from a dead body, life masks are from a living person. Though made using the same technique, extra care is needed to ensure the individual can breathe comfortably during the process. 

Why were life masks so popular? Amongst the wealthy, famous, and elite, these plaster masks were a way to create artistic renditions, paintings, and sculptures. Posing for a painting or sculpture took time, and these masks made it possible for artists to work from a realistic form without being there in person. 

After death, the life masks serve a similar purpose. They’re a way to remember the deceased, and artists continue to draw upon them for renditions. Today, both life masks and death masks are a way to recreate and preserve the past. 

Where Can You Find Death Masks in Pop Culture, Movies, or Other Media?

Though traditional death masks have fallen out of practice thanks to modern photography, you can still find death masks in pop culture and media. Today, masks are worn as part of costumes, celebrations, and festivals. They’re even commonly found in modern sports, like hockey. 

While these modern masks aren’t a way to preserve the facial expressions of the deceased, it’s interesting to see how mask-wearing still is a strong part of pop culture. With well-known films like The Mask exploring some of the folklore around mask-wearing, there are endless ways masks appear in modern life. 

Other than seeing historical death masks, these creations are no longer a common way to preserve the dead. That being said, their legacy is still alive and well in other forms. From historical re-creations to wax figures, people still have a fascination with experiencing life-like figures from the past. 

One of the most famous examples is Madame Tussauds wax museum. Started as an exhibit that brings history to life in 1802, these exhibits are found across the globe. The creator of Madame Tussauds, Marie Tussaud, got her start as a death mask caster, famously making death masks from the severed heads of the French Revolution. 

Her skills expanded to wax arts, and this trend spread across the globe. Today, guests from around the world can get up close and personal with life-like recreations of celebrities, politicians, and historical figures.

These museums are so common that they’ve long done away with their historical roots. That said, it’s worth visiting the original historical museum in London to explore Marie Tussaud’s original creations.

A Glimpse at the Mask of Death

Death masks traveled a long way through history to get to where they are today. Taken in the first minutes or hours after death, this has long been an intimate tradition that blurs the lines between this world and the afterlife. While death masks were originally only for the elite or even godlike in ancient cultures, it’s now something artists are reclaiming for all. 

Though this type of confrontation with death might be intimidating, it’s important to recognize the value of legacy. Our bodies don’t last long after we die. Even with embalming, our bodies take up a temporary space. A death mask preserves this part of ourselves, our expressions, and our features. It’s a solid memory and something time can’t destroy. 

We have death masks to thank for our understanding of people who belonged to another time. In meeting their masks, we face them ourselves from a brighter future. 


Sources

  1. Cannizzaro, Andrew. “7 Famous Death Masks in History.” Biography. 21 June 2019. Biography.com
  2. “Death mask.” Britannica: Philosophy and Religion. Britannica.com
  3. Glass, Nick. “The curious and gruesome art of human death masks.” CNN. 30 October 2017. CNN.com
  4. “Make an Ancient Egyptian death mask.” Council for British Archeology. Yak-uk.org

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