At the end of many remarkable lives, historic figures were immortalized with death masks. Easily the most haunting memento of the deceased, death masks have been in existence since the time of Tutankhamun, whose solid gold burial mask is an object of extreme beauty and superstition. Created with either wax or plaster, the death mask was ususally created right after the moment of death. Before the widespread availability of photography, the death mask was also used as a sort of forensic tool to aid relatives in identifying a deceased body if their loved one was a missing person. Life masks were also created using wax or plaster and was usually commissioned by the subject so that they could be immortalized for all eternity. Following are the life and death masks of some rather famous (and infamous) faces:
As the director of such thriller classsics as Rear Window, Psycho, Vertigo and North by Northwest, it’s only fitting that the King of Suspense is immortalized in his very own death mask (which would actually look quite good in the Bates Motel). Hitchcock died of kidney failure on April 30, 1980.
Napoleon’s death mask is a marble cast mold. Much mystery and controversy however, surrounds the origins and whereabouts of the original cast molds. There are several different versions of Napoleon’s death mask in circulation–after his death many people, including hero-worshippers, wanted to own a copy.
Only four copies of the original cast have been verified as genuine. A book has even been written on the subject (Les Masques Mortuaires de Napoleon by E. de Veaux). What is known however, is that Napoleon’s original death mask was created on May 7, 1821, just a day and a half after his death on the island of St. Helena at age fifty-one. His cause of death is unknown.
Vladimir Ilyich Lenin
Vladimir Ilyich Lenin died after suffering a series of strokes at his home in Gorki. Well-known sculptor Sergey Merkurov was asked to produce the death masks. Merkurov had studied under Auguste Rodin in Paris and was one of Russia’s most famous artists.
He was considered the greatest Soviet master of post-mortem masks. The famous statue of Lenin that stood in Lenin Square was also the work of Merkurov. The death masks were made shortly after Lenin passed away on January 21, 1924, at 6.50pm.
Lincoln actually never had a death mask but he did have two life masks made during his lifetime. The first one was made during Lincoln’s visit to Chicago in the early spring of 1860. The second life mask was created on February 11, 1865. When Lincoln compared the two, it was clear how great a toll the Civil War had taken on his health.
Reportedly one friend who saw him a few weeks after the last mask was made noted that he “looked badly and felt badly.” To another friend Lincoln confided, “I am very unwell.” Ironically in 2007, a study was done of Lincoln’s face, life mask, and medical records and it was concluded that he suffered from a disease called multiple mucosal neuroma syndrome.
It was also determined that had he not been assassinated, Lincoln would have succumbed to this disease rather quickly anyway.
Sir Issac’s scientific interests and activities continued almost to the day of his death in his eighty-fifth year. He presided at a meeting of the Royal Society in London for the last time in March 1727, but the trip exhausted him. Succeeding days brought severe pain from an old bladder complaint; he lapsed into a coma and died on March 20 at his home in Pitt Street, Kensington, where he had moved to escape the London air pollution.