A death mask is an impression of a deceased person’s face used for spiritual or remembrance purposes. Some of the earliest examples of this art form comes from the ancient Egyptians who made the masks to be housed with the body. They believed that the mask assisted the spirit in locating their body in the afterlife. Some tribes also took a spiritual approach, treating the masks like powerful talismans capable of transferring special abilities to the wearer. The invention of photography more or less made death masks a thing of the past because pictures were easier to take, just as effective in capturing likenesses, if not more so, and were a more affordable option to the general public.

Most death masks were taken of the rich and famous. I have come across a few made from executed criminals or of ordinary people whose families wanted something to memorialize them by. One of the most famous death masks ever exists from an unidentified woman whose body was fished out of a river in Paris. It is thought that the woman committed suicide by jumping into the river Seine between the 1870s and 1880s. Her body was brought into the morgue where the attendant thought to capture her beauty by crafting a death mask. She is often referred to as “the unknown woman of the Seine” or as “the drowned Mona Lisa.” I believe her face looks far too peaceful and intact to actually be a case of drowning by suicide, but I am sure that the true details of her story have long been lost to time. You may have seen her face before though because many artists have used her likeness as inspiration in their works and it is even her face on some CPR dolls. This sleeping beauty is one of the most kissed faces of all time.

My idea for today’s topic came from a great book I have been reading lately titled, All the Living and the Dead by Hayley Campbell. It focuses on the stories of modern professionals that have built their careers around death. In one chapter she meets Nick Reynolds, a British sculptor best known for his death masks. The artist usually starts his process by taking a mold of a person using an alginate gel, the same used to make dental impressions. Sometimes he would have to do a bit of tweaking with the cast later to fill in areas that looked sunken or damaged. His goal, as I am sure with many such artists, is to produce a realistic snapshot of who a person was in life. Today, it is possible to make death masks using scanners and 3D printers, but some prefer to do it the old fashioned way, with the mold actually having touched the person’s face. 

Although less common, the concept of the death mask is a fascinating thing to me. Not only does it serve as a piece of remembrance, but it is also a work of art. The masks have the ability to ease death-related anxieties because the people who have already crossed into the eternal unknown look as though they are blissfully slumbering. 

Until Next Time



·         Campbell, Haley. All the Living and the Dead. St Martin’s Press, NY: 2022. Print.

·         Glass, Nick. “The Curious and Gruesome Art of Human Death Masks.” CNN. 30 October, 2017. Accessed 2 February, 2023. cnn.com/style/article/death-masks/index.html.

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