Human beings have gone to great extents to remember their departed loved ones. While the ancient Greeks erected monuments, the Victorians created wreaths made from the hair of the dead after taking their post-mortem pictures. Just as these, there are post-mortem death masks that offer a 3D remembrance of the dead.
History of the Death Masks
The Egyptians and the Africans were the first to introduce death masks as a spiritual ritual. Post the middle ages; the masks became the memorials of the dead. An accurate representation is created using wax, plaster or clay casts by capturing images of the face of the person after his/her passing. Painters and sculptors were employed to create these masks to acquire maximum accuracy.
Before the invention of photography, death masks were used to record the features of unidentified bodies with the hope of identification.
Making a Death Mask
The body tends to bloat after death within some hours. It is essential to make the death masks at the earliest after the death for accuracy. The face and facial hair have to be greased for easy removal and to keep the body intact while making the mask.
The doctor will then cover the face in two layers of plaster bandages. The first layer will cast the facial details while the second layer will strengthen the cast. The plaster will need about an hour to set. Then the plaster is removed. At times, the cast is filled with wax or metal to get a three-dimensional representation.
Some Famous Death Masks
The death mask of the famous and most notorious gangster of 1930s, John Dillinger, is quite renowned. John Dillinger’s popularity led to two groups of medical students creating these casts without authorization at the morgue after his death.
The mask of Dillinger includes every minute detail like the gunshot wound and even the scrapes on his face. The detailing also had some unprofessional plastic surgery scars.
Napoleon Bonaparte is yet another famous person whose mask was created after his death in 1821. Many controversies surround his mask. Supposedly, Madame Bertrand stole his mask following which the mask had to be recreated. It is said that the masks were created thrice.
Bizarre and Mysterious Dante Mask
Dante Alighieri was Italy’s most famous poet and the author of the Divine Comedy. His death mask can be seen in Palazzo Vecchio in Florence. Dante’s death mask is guarded in a small glass display case.
At one time there were twenty masks of Dante’s face, but none of those still existing today can be identified as authentic. The mask in Palazzo Vecchio was most probably done from a sculpture that used to be on his tomb in Ravenna, sometime in the 15th century. It’s the most famous of all, and never ceases to fascinate scholars and fans.
Although death masks are not common today, people are putting in immense effort in preserving the memories of the dead with the help of gravestones and other rituals. This act of remembering the dead is certainly unique. Ironically, what gives the surviving loved ones’ comfort after death is not the ability to forget, but the need to remember those who are gone.