Death Masks and Photography

Let’s stick with the creepy theme for October, and today look at the phenomenon of death masks and death photography.  If you’re squeamish, be prepared to feel uncomfortable. But, like, don’t stop reading or anything. Just buckle up.

L’inconnue de la Seine

L’inconnue de la Seine

Death Masks

For as long as people have been dying, those left behind have been looking for ways to memorialize their lost loved ones or important people.  As early as ancient Egypt, with the boy king Tutankhamun, people have been creating death masks, or memorial casts of the faces of the deceased.  The practice really took off in Europe in the late 1800s when a young woman, known only as “L’inconnue de la Seine” (the unknown of the Seine) was pulled from that river after her suspected suicide; the morgue attendant who prepared her body was so taken with her youth and beauty that he made a plaster mold of her face.  Yowzas.

While no longer the norm, death masks are still made, but now usually for art.  Nick Reynolds, a former British Navy diver turned artist, told CNN about his process in a Style article from 2017.  “It’s quite a messy business,” he reported. Reynolds still uses the traditional materials of the form: plaster of Paris and wax.  Picture it: Reynolds basically paper maché the faces of the dead, and then uses wax to recreate the person’s face. It’s an odd art form, no doubt, but this is the guy who had himself cast as a life-size, crucified version of Jesus with the wound on his side being represented by a vagina.  So, double yowzas.

Death Photography

The memorialization game changed completely with the advent of the photograph.  No longer were dead bodies plastered for molds, now they were being dressed up and posed, either alone or with their families.  In a time when the majority of people couldn’t afford to have a portrait of themselves painted, and before we all had a camera in our pocket, captured images of people you knew where rare and expensive.  Usually, pictures were saved for special occasions. And what’s more special than the last time you were going to see a loved one?

The trend really took off in Victorian England.  With the passing of Prince Albert in 1861, Queen Victoria made mourning fashionable, and so death became part of every-day life.  Considering the era was plagued (sorry – cheap pun) with illnesses like measles, diphtheria and rubella, life could be fleeting, especially for children.  While death photography of all ages occurred, it was often families that posed their dead children with their living ones or parents so as to remember what their complete family looked like.  Once health care began to improve, the life expectancy lengthened, and death photography started to die out (and no, I’m not sorry for that one).

Daughters posed with dead mother

Daughters posed with dead mother


Modern Versions

These practices haven’t completely died out either.  (I can’t stop now! Oh no!) Death masks and photography are still used, but now for a more dramatic purposes: police work.  3D printing is enabling police forces to creating sanitized versions of damaged skulls. (Who wants to serve on a jury if there’s a chance you’ll be handed the skull of the deceased to examine the pattern of blows?)  

The most common use of 3D printing of faces in police work, however, is for identification purposes.  And this isn’t a new phenomenon. Once a replica of the skull is created (now facilitated by 3D printing), clay is applied in layers to flesh out the look of the deceased.  Once the face is made to look like a living person, identification becomes much, much easier.

So, from Tutankhamun to modern applications, memorializing the look of the dead seems to be trend that isn’t going anywhere…  

Happy spook-tober!



The curious and gruesome art of human death masks

Taken from life: The unsettling art of death photography  

How police departments are using 3D printing to solve crime