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What is a Death Mask?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 23, 2024
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A death mask is a casting of someone's face which is taken after death. Typically either wax or plaster is used to create the mask, which may later be used as a model for sculptures, portraits, and other mementos. At one time, creating these masks was very widespread, and an important cultural aspect of mourning rituals for many people. The practice has declined radically since the advent of photography.

The concept of the death mask is ancient. The Greeks, Egyptians, and Romans all made them, and in some cases sculptors also used the dead as models for busts, effigies, and other memorials for the dead. One of the most famous death masks from the ancient world is probably the mask on the mummy of Tutankhamen; the Egyptians believed that the mask gave power to the mummy.

In the Middle Ages, it was very common to take a death mask after death, and well through the early 20th century, a mask was often offered routinely by funeral parlors and people who prepared bodies for burial. Making a good death mask actually requires some skill, because it can be hard to take a cast of the face without distorting the features or damaging the body.

Death masks of numerous notable personages can be seen on display in libraries and museums. Many musicians and artists have been memorialized with such masks, which were later copied and distributed and used to make busts of varying sizes. Depending on the skill of the person who makes the mask, it can be a poignant reminder of the dead, or a somewhat macabre curiosity.

In addition to serving as sentimental relics, death masks also historically played an important role in forensics. Pathologists who examined bodies would take a death mask if the body was that of an unknown person, in the hopes that family members would be able to identify the body by its features at some point in the future. This practice largely vanished after the development of photography, although molds and models of various parts of crime victims are still made today for specialized use in forensics.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a Musical Expert researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By arod2b42 — On Jan 22, 2011


This just goes to show how little we know of the future of this world and how silly it is to expect that all your life's work will have any meaning here in the long run. Even burial does not go untouched by disaster.

By dbuckley212 — On Jan 19, 2011

Death masks were quite valuable, and grave robbers in Egypt found a way to make a great living. Selling one or two artifacts from the tomb of a king could earn you enough money to settle down and live happily to the end of your life. Sad that the Pharaohs could not have foreseen such a fate to all their untold riches.

By ShadowGenius — On Jan 18, 2011

Pyramids and other large burial mounds and tombs were made so that the dead would be remembered as who they were in life. The masks ensured that the strongest indicator of their identity, their face, remained intact in this world. Pharaohs were so concerned about being remembered that they ordered a massive number of people to spend a significant portion of their lives in working on ensuring they were not forgotten via the construction of the pyramids.

By anon133676 — On Dec 11, 2010

why did egyptians do it?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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