HOW DEATH MASKS ARE TAKEN
By Georg Kolbe
From the Book “Undying Faces” by Ernst Benkard
We say that death is a deliverance. And it is true that the last breath is followed almost immediately by an unearthly smile. Freed from all suffering, achievement! To die seems thus a fulfillment, a consummation, the most exalted moment in life. So long as the blood is yet warm and the muscles yet in action, the face is transfigured as if in a final glow of youth. Then the body grows cold, the features stiffen and change. Decay and decomposition announce the destruction of all that is of the body. The dead resemble withering plants.
As a rule the summons to take a death mask is issued too late and consequently the image obtained is one of life distorted, whereas a few hours earlier it would have been possible to perpetuate the moment of glorious consummation. It is strange how widespread is the mistaken belief that the rigidity of death is a prerequisite, whilst in fact the moulder should be the very first to approach the dead. How often I have been told that the dead man had been so beautiful–but now he is so repulsive. “Come quickly,” said the brother of a man who had just died, “he is so beautiful.” When I came after the brief space of an hour he already felt it to be impossible to take the mask, for he thought the face so hideous. In that case, however, the situation could still be saved. But the dead must be rightly handled. They lie there helpless, they are marvelously pliant before rigidity sets in. I lay the head low in the line of exact equilibrium so as to avoid compressing and displacing the relaxed muscles and skin. The eye-lids and lips are gently closed, the chin is propped, and so on. All this a careful nurse would naturally do, but without sensing the true expression, the individuality, and without perseverance. The hair is combed smooth and often arranged in an unaccustomed manner. Hands which perhaps were never folded in life are laid across the body in an attitude of prayer, without regard to the personality. How much can be feigned with the dead, and how they can be distorted. Especially, the features are vastly sensitive; the smallest touch is powerful to redress or mar.
Taking the mask is not, or should not be, making a mould from a rigid body–it almost resembles modelling from life. Only if the dead are already cold do they offer an immovable, unchangeable image for our operations. It is true, indeed, that under such circumstances many mediocre heads look impressive; they benefit by the distortion. But what are such masks to us?
To sum up what I have said: whether it is an old man or a child upon the bier, whether death has come easily or painfully, I must hasten; on every face is the smile of a soul released. And the departed must be rightly handled. Only simple, mechanical touches are still needed, in which my moulder is more skilful than I; the parts where hair is growing are painted over with a thin solution of modelling clay or with oil, so that the plaster may not adhere when it is poured over. The skin itself contains enough fat and needs no preparation. The outline of the mask, the parts on the neck, behind the ears, and so on, are surrounded with the thinnest of damp paper. Unfortunately there is hardly ever time to mould the whole head, back and front; relatives and friends and undertakers are waiting, and the work must be done speedily, as always in our precious life. A large bowl of plaster of the consistency of soup is ladled over the face a few millimeters in thickness; then a thread is drawn over the middle of the forehead, the bridge of the nose, the mouth and chin. A second bowl of more solid plaster is spread over the first layer like pulp (this is to provide a firm outer shell), and before it sets the thread is drawn away, dividing the whole into two halves. As soon as the outer layer has set hard, the halved mould is broken apart and carefully detached from the head; this is the most difficult step, for the mould enclosing the body was airtight. The halves thus detached are immediately fitted together again and clamped, the negative is cleaned and refilled with plaster. Roughnesses on the covering outer shell are carefully chipped away with mallet and chisel, and there we have the positive, the finished mask. I do not touch it again, for it must be good.
There are, on the other hand, masks which have been too much touched up and even supplemented–worse still, hair and other adornments have been added. But such things are monstrosities, a violation and a false counterfeit of life.
Black & White Photos and quotations from: Benkard, Ernst, & Green, Margaret (1927). Undying Faces, A Collection of Death Masks. New York, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.