Death Mask

Robin Botie of Ithaca, New York, photographs a death mask of a prisoner at the Old Melbourne Gaol.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?

 

 

 

 

 

 

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6 thoughts on “Death Mask

  1. Elaine Mansfield

    I knew about death masks since they were big in Egyptian and Greek mythology, but never thought of making one for Vic. It was enough to shroud him the night he died and then again the next day after cremation. Amazing that they bothered to make desk masks for prisoners. Amazing, sad, and a little creepy. We humans have always been captivated by death. It’s bigger than we are and always wins in the end.

    Reply
    1. Robin Botie Post author

      Making the death masks of prisoners almost seems like a victory-for-justice act. The masks are like trophies to show that justice always wins in the end. And yes, people were fascinated by them, as well as by the hangings. But for me, seeing all these pale faces almost gleeming in the light at the jail, it was more a thing of understanding the reality of incarcerated individuals. I entered one of the cells, closed the door, and knelt on the floor to feel what it felt like, alone in a cell. The other thing that struck me was how all the faces seemed so devoid of evil or bad character. All these criminals, when dead and plastered to preserve their features, looked like docile innocent children.

      Reply
  2. Gladys Botie

    When a person (the lost loved one) possesses such classical features to be exceptional and rewarding to all who wish to preserve it physically for remembrance — I can understand why it would be done. My mother was profesionalley embalmed by error — because in the Jewish faith it is not approved . The result was astounding. She was a beautiful woman and her death mask showed a view of a woman of half her age at her demise. Gone were the ravages of aging and illness . My father — when he saw her was overcome with remembrance and cried out ” Oh — my princess, my princess!”. I, personally prefer the many portraits of her when she was alive and living among those who loved her. I do not relish the thoughts of exposing the body that has already endured the devastation of pain and illness to further manipulation. I am happy that my father achieved a favorable remembrance of his princess — but I think it increased the feeling of his loss. I would prefer to remember a loved one from the photos and the memories of when she was alive and enjoying the love of those about her.

    Reply
    1. Robin Botie Post author

      I know what you mean, Mom. The photos I have of your parents and sisters are awesome. I feel lucky and proud to have my hall filled with them. But if you could see those amazing death masks in person, with the light and shadows moving over them, changing their character and bringing out different facial landscapes at each turn – you would be taken with their magic too. Even the ones with less-than-classical features. There’s some sort of special effect that a life-size three-dimensional form can emit. When I stood before those death masks of the prisoners in the Old Melbourne Gaol, I could almost hear them calling.

      Reply
    1. Robin Botie Post author

      Wondering how that might look, Lynne. Death masks lining your shelves instead of books? Death masks in the garden? Death masks climbing up the stairs, maybe lit from under with tiny battery-operated tea lights? I don’t know about you but my list of loved ones on the other side has grown so great that I can hardly remember them when I try to recite the whole list during my moon watching times.

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