What is a Death Mask?

A death mask is a cast of someone’s face taken after they have died. The mask is usually made of wax or plaster, and it can later be used as a model for sculptures, portraits, and other mementos. Making these masks was once very popular, and it was an important cultural aspect of many people’s mourning rituals. Since the invention of photography, the practice has drastically decreased.

The death mask is a centuries-old concept. They were created the Greeks, Egyptians, and Romans, and sculptors used the dead as models for busts, effigies, and other memorials for the dead in some cases. The mask on Tutankhamen’s mummy is probably one of the most famous death masks from the ancient world; the Egyptians believed that the mask gave the mummy power.

It was common practice in the Middle Ages to wear a death mask after death, and funeral parlors and people who prepared bodies for burial continued to do so well into the early twentieth century. Making a good death mask requires some skill, as taking a cast of the face without distorting the features or damaging the body can be difficult.

Many famous people’s death masks can be found on display in libraries and museums. Many musicians and artists have been honored with such masks, which have since been copied, distributed, and used to create busts of various sizes. Depending on the skill of the person who creates the mask, it can be a moving tribute to the deceased or a morbid curiosity.

Death masks have historically played an important role in forensics, in addition to serving as sentimental relics. If the body was that of an unknown person, pathologists would use a death mask in the hopes that family members would be able to identify the body its features at some point in the future. Although molds and models of various parts of crime victims are still made today for specialized use in forensics, this practice largely vanished with the development of photography.