November 17, 2007

Funeral Masks

"Pastor Dan" at Street Prophets had an interesting diary the other day about a recent funeral he attended. He saw a woman take a picture of the deceased and asked the question, "Why do people take pictures of the dead?" While I'm certainly no expert on the subject, I decided to add a couple of comments to that diary, which have been expanded upon below. This is what Dan originally had to say:

An Aged Relative took a snapshot of the deceased to add to her collection. She said she had one of her mother, father, and sister.

This is one of those customs I don't judge but can't pretend to understand. I suppose it's no odder than laying out the decedent in the front parlor, a custom still followed in some sub-cultures.

But yeah, what gives?

Several people who had made earlier comments on Pastor Dan's diary noted the popularity of photographs taken of the dead during the Victorian age, but the practice actually goes back thousands of years. I'm not sure if anyone knows exactly when the practice of making a death mask or funeral mask first started, but this practice has occurred in many different cultures. Both the ancient Egyptians and Greeks made funeral masks for their dead, especially for royalty. Some of these masks are very famous and familiar to us; others not so much. Of course, nearly everyone will recognize the funeral mask of King Tutankhamen, made of gold and a number of semi-precious stones, including lapis lazuli, carnelian, quartz, turquoise and obsidian, plus colored glass. However, the Egyptians also made mummy masks for non-royal subjects, both men and women, up through the Roman era. These masks were much less expensive than royal masks, of course, often being made of "cartonnage," which was a process similar to papier-mâché in which layers of linen were plastered together, molded and then painted. In later periods, papyrus scrolls were used in place of the linen. (Source)

Heinrich Schliemann, the amateur archaeologist who discovered the ruins of Troy, is also famous for having dug up the shaft graves of Mycenae. Among the art objects found in the shaft graves of Mycenae's Grave Circle A included what is now known as the Mask of Agamemnon, made of gold, although the mask (along with four others found at Mycenae) are now dated to the Late Helladic I period (c. 1500-1550 BCE), perhaps 200-250 years or so before the life of the actual Agamemnon (if he was, in fact, an historical figure, which I believe he was).

Gold, of course, was a popular choice of material for royal death masks around the world, but other materials were used as well. Wood was a popular material in many cultures, such as the Ibo (right) and the Egyptians, being abundant and easy to carve. Jade was popular among the Mayans and the Chinese, the latter also making funeral masks in bronze.

Into the Roman era, we find a significant difference between the earlier peoples versus those of the later antiquity: the funeral masks are kept among the living instead of being buried with the dead. The ancient Romans made funeral masks of their ancestors, normally of wax, but hung them in the front lobby to their home so that visitors could see the visages of prominent ancestors (especially those who had held public office, such as the consulship). In Tom Holland's book, Rubicon, he wrote:

"Beyond a portico designed to echo the features of a temple, the walls of the atrium were hung with forbidding images, the wax death-masks of magistrattes, bearing witness to the honours won by the family in the past. Painted lines connected the portraits, reaching backwards into time..." (p. 116)

In the West, the practice of creating funeral masks has lasted into the twentieth century, even at a time when photography has made the masks irrelevant. Ludwig van Beethoven's plaster funeral mask has survived to this day (top photo, above), as has that of the Bohemian-Austrian composer Gustav Mahler. What's interesting is a comment made by a friend of Beethoven, Stephan von Breuning:

"Such casts of great men are often permitted," wrote Bruening beforehand, "and if we forbade it, our refusal might afterwards be regarded as an encroachment upon the rights of the public."

The alleged death mask of Bruce Lee.

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