On the making of a death mask

Making a death mask, New York 1908
Taken by George Grantham Bain, New York 1908.

This fascinating photograph from a century ago portrays something that is to me a little macabre. The thought of a three dimensional, tactile representation of my post-mortem visage being preserved makes me feel uneasy. Don’t get me wrong; to me the human body is a marvellous and beautiful thing. But not in death, or at least not beyond the final farewell kiss of the forehead of someone I loved in life, now lying in an open coffin. Memories of events and shared experiences are what matter most to me.

I describe the act of making a death mask as macabre, but still I find this picture fascinating. Just contemplate the intimacy of it; look at the respectful concentration in the workers’ faces, and the serene calm of the situation. Of course it’s a posed shot, but there is also movement there, as you can see from the blur in the hand of the man on the left.

The making of a death mask is not the same as the moving interview and photographic study by Walter Schels and Beate Lakotta of 24 terminally ill people conducted before and just after they died. This was exhibited recently at the Welcome Collection in London. The Guardian’s Joanna Moorhead wrote a profile of Schels and Lakotta, and accompanied this with a number of dignified before and after-death images. I was first alerted to the exhibition by John Carter Wood.

See here for a full-size version of the death mask photo.

Hat tip: Mick Hartley