I wish I’d made a death mask of my daughter seven years ago. Like the ones I found myself drawn to in Australia, at the Old Melbourne Gaol. The death masks of executed inmates. Especially that of Martha Needle, one of four women who had been hung there. The masks are true-to scale, three-dimensional representations of the deceased, in plaster or wax casts taken directly from the faces of the individuals right after their hangings. They capture light and shadows, and seem to still contain some spark of the prisoner’s unique character. Much more so than a photo.
The facial expressions seem to be devoid of emotion. Small signs of stress were visible in only a few. Mostly, the death masks radiated a serene peace. I think that’s what attracted me to them.
Before the widespread availability of photography, death masks were the only way to preserve the appearance of the departed. Death masks were made of the notable and the notorious. Royalty. The wealthy, and the famous. And criminals. Death masks were also made of the unknown, as in unidentified bodies, to permanently record and preserve the facial features of an unclaimed corpse, for future identification purposes.
Searching on Google, you can find many different sets of directions for making a death mask. Some tips: It has to be made in the first few hours after death so that bloat and decomposition do not alter the likeness of the subject. And you need to prop up the body into a sitting position so the weight of the plaster doesn’t distort the features. You smear grease over the face, including the individual’s eyebrows and hair, so the plaster won’t stick to it. You dip plaster strips into water and apply smoothly all over the head. The first layer will capture details like lines and wrinkles. Several subsequent layers reinforce the first. Let the plaster set until hardened and then cut through the mold to get two halves. Carefully remove the mold and paste it back together at the cut seam, and then pour melted wax into it. Remove the plaster mold from the wax impression, and behold.
A life mask is made the same way, but it is made from a live subject. Okay, this is one of my more weird posts. I’m just saying, if you love a living person dearly now, and find comfort in gazing at her face, and you dare to remember that death and grieving come to all of us sooner or later, maybe you want to consider making a mask. A life mask. Now. While she’s still here.
What favorite thing do you keep to remember someone you love?