The Mona Lisa of Death Masks

Written By Meg Elison

Meg Elison is a Philip K. Dick and Locus award winning author, as well as a Hugo, Nebula, Sturgeon, and Otherwise awards finalist. A prolific short story writer and essayist, Elison has been published in Slate, McSweeney’s, Fantasy & Science Fiction, Fangoria, Uncanny, Lightspeed, Nightmare, and Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy. Elison is a high school dropout and a graduate of UC Berkeley.

They call her L’Inconnue de la Seine, and no one knows her name but she left behind one of the most famous death masks in human history.

But what is a death mask?

Death masks are three-dimensional cast objects created by pressing a malleable medium against the face of a corpse to take on its shape. Even if you’ve never heard of this, you’ve probably seen one. The golden face of an Egyptian sarcophagus is a death mask. Portraits and sculptures of the deceased were often based on a death mask. After all: there’s no better opportunity to ask someone to hold still.

Why would anyone do this?

Death masks exist for a lot of reasons. Some have been made as studies for later artists to work from to recreate a specific person, or to keep as anonymous models to study a face utterly at rest but without identification. People in the ancient world got the idea to preserve the faces of those who had died and created death masks. Without cameras, their best bet seemed to be using something soft like wax and casting more lasting materials from that wax mold. Wealthy and powerful Romans, including senators and emperors, had their images preserved in this way. They called it imagines maiorum.

Other civilizations used something soft but costly, molding the faces or skulls of the dead in gold. Those Egyptian funerary fineries are cast in deep yellow gold and embedded with real jewels. Nineteenth century anthropologists discovered Mycenae graves with gold-covered skulls in what is now Greece. In the Middle Ages, death masks weren’t left in tombs but used to represent and symbolize the dead for the benefit of mourners or subjects. Death masks were created from the corpses of genocidal tyrant Oliver Cromwell, regular tyrant Napoleon Bonaparte, composers Ludwig von Beethoven and Frederic Chopin, and even the misunderstood scientist, Nikola Tesla.

What about now?

Modern civilization has created death masks or facial modeling as a component of science. Early hominid skulls have been measured so that their depth of flesh can be estimated and then sculpted out to what their faces may have once looked like. Murder victims of whom not much is left have often been treated with the same, attempted to recreate a face that someone might recognize and ID the body.

How do I make my OWN death mask?

Making a mask from a human face isn’t difficult, even if the person is still alive. The only real difference is air holes. Papier-mâche or plaster and gauze can be layered delicately over a lubricated face until it hardens, then pulled free to reveal a cast from which any mask might be made (for fun or profit!). The visage of a person who is not breathing can be cast in latex or clay or another wet medium that doesn’t allow for breathing. Death masks can be painted, leafed in gold, Ancient civilizations who didn’t have YouTube could do it; surely you can, too. A death mask made in life is hard to pass off as the real thing. There is a slack quality to the face in death that even the sleeping face cannot match; a vacancy, even if the face of the dead individual seems to be smiling.

Sign-up for Letters From The Psychopomp

a weekly letter from The Psychopomp about Death, and the latest from

    So what happened to L’Inconnue de la Seine?

    L’Inconnue de la Seine might have been murdered. She might have committed suicide, or died in a public ward for people suffering with tuberculosis. Nothing is known of her, not her name or even the day that she died. Someone might have been moved to make a plaster cast of her face because of her youth, her beauty, or the serenity of her expression in death. We’ll never know. But we do know her.

    We know her mainly because her face became the visage of the victim; used as a model for the Resusci-Anne doll used to train first responders and caregivers to administer CPR. Ironic that a woman whose most iconic move was to die became a symbol for the preservation of life under the rib-cracking conditions of someone else’s breath.

    This unknown woman’s death mask became an enduring symbol, used as a model for artists for more than a century and even becoming something of a sex symbol to people all over Europe, who projected their desires on to her enigmatic face. A romantic impression of a woman who smiles and asks for nothing is always popular, and L’Inconnue is one of the most enduring example of that, right up there with the Mona Lisa.

    What will happen to your lovingly made death mask?

    Death endures even longer than the Mona Lisa, than King Tut, than anything we can be or do or make. Death masks remain popular because we are curious about the dead. We want to know them, want to remember them, want to understand their state as our own future one. They carry with them the history of people who were known to those around them without photographs, without portraits on banknotes. They carry with them the ancient world, the knowledge of what we used to look like and live like and be like. Cast your own face and see your future, leave it where it might be found to speak for the past.

    Look upon L’Inconnue, upon Resusci-Anne, and remember it might continue speaking a long time after your own true mouth is stopped with dust.