Death Mask As Diagnostic?
Modern medicine can diagnose the long-dead with the aid of a death mask. For example, we now know that the great Scottish writer Sir Walter Scott died of a stroke, as seen by the drooping of half of his face captured in his mask. Abe Lincoln had two life masks made, one right before his death. (A life mask is made of the same material and by the same process as a death mask, only the subject is alive). Experts see evidence of some sort of "wasting disease" that likely would have killed him, despite his assassination [source: History Channel].
Death Masks in the Drawing Room
By the 19th century, death masks weren't just tools for artists anymore. The pseudoscience of phrenology exploded, and phrenologists eagerly collected death masks to study the skull shapes of the royal and the famous [source: Gibson].
The masks had also become mementos of the dead. It's the last likeness of a loved one a family can own, and a death mask preserves what some consider to be the very essence of a person -- their face. The plaster negative could be used to make multiple positives out of stone, metal or wax that could then be shared to commemorate the dead. Royal and wealthy families proudly displayed their macabre reminders of the recently deceased.
Today you can see the death masks of Beethoven, Chopin, Audobon and many others. Chances are, if they were famous or royal, they had a death mask.
Even with the advent of photography, death masks were still being made well into the 20th century. A photograph can capture the likeness of the recently deceased, but only in two dimensions. A plaster mold and mask is true to scale. It's a three-dimensional impression that responds to the light and shadows of a room, copied from the very face it represents. The most famous examples include Nikola Tesla and Max Reinhardt. A bronze death mask was cast for Arthur H. Compton, the physicist and Nobel laureate -- he died in 1962! [source: Delaney].
So do you want to learn how one is made?