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How Death Masks Blur the Lines Between Art, Mourning, and Remembrance

Hayley Campbell on the Painstaking Process of Depicting the Dead For the Living

Nick Reynolds spent his childhood on the run in Mexico with his father, the infamous Great Train Robbery mastermind Bruce Reynolds, and now lives not far from me in London—in a flat on the second floor, on a hill so high there are no buildings obscuring the sky outside the window, nothing between him and the sun but atmosphere. It’s a thin warren crammed with art, tour lanyards and bronze heads. I lean against the doorframe in the kitchen while Nick walks from room to room talking, looking for things, telling me he’s been flat out for days, that he has to be on a tour bus at eight in the morning, that he can’t find the thing he saved to show me—a thank-you letter from a client.

As he makes me a mug of tea, he motions past the chaos of dishes, chisels and teabags towards a white plaster face on the bench by the window. He stops working just after sunset, he says, because working is pointless once the light has gone. It’s dark outside now, and the details of the man’s features are lost in the stark flood of the kitchen bulb. It’s clearly a face, and a handsome one, but without that visible detail it would be hard to remember it.

“A suicide,” he says. “He threw himself off Beachy Head. Took a running jump too, by all accounts.” Near the plaster head, which Nick says he had to patch up in post-production—his jaw was out of line, there were inch-deep dents in his skull from the fall—there is a plaster hand and a plaster foot. Nick doesn’t know why someone would want pieces of a man who could have landed in pieces. He tends not to ask why anyone wants the things he makes.

Why take a cast of a dead person’s face when so many people cannot bear to look at the dead body at all?

Death masks, throughout history, have had many lives. They have been the realm of kings and pharaohs, used in the making of effigies so that dead royalty could travel their land and people could pay their final respects to an imperishable leader, no matter how long the trip. They were an artist’s reference tool before the invention of photography, for use in the making of portraits, and largely discarded afterwards—the artist’s rendering deemed more important and befitting than a three-dimensional print straight from the person’s face. Death masks were also cast of unknown dead in the hopes of one day identifying them.

One of them, taken of a young woman pulled from the Seine in the early 1800s, is now the most kissed face in the world, appearing on the very first CPR training doll, Resusci Anne, in 1960. Albert Camus, who kept a copy of the mask, called her the drowned Mona Lisa. The surrealists made her their static, silent muse. Maybe you’ve met her. Maybe you’ve saved a life because you did.

Earlier that day, I had been flipping through a book called Undying Faces by Ernst Benkard. Published (in English) in 1929, it’s a collection of death masks ranging from the fourteenth century up to the twentieth. Friedrich Nietzsche is here, Leo Tolstoy, Victor Hugo, Mahler, Beethoven. Famous people, rich people, political leaders. All of these dead faces, preserved in plaster, moments, days or weeks after they breathed their last. But why make a death mask now? If you want to preserve an image, why not just take a photograph? Why take a cast of a dead person’s face when so many people cannot bear to look at the dead body at all? It had been months since I’d visited the Mayo Clinic and I kept replaying one scene in my mind: Terry staying behind, swapping back the faces of the medical cadavers. What is in a face?

I’ve come here to ask Nick, who has been casting the faces of the dead for over twenty years, and is the only person doing it (commercially, anyway) in the UK. I had seen his work on headstones in Highgate Cemetery, near where I live: the bronze head of Malcolm McLaren sits above the sandblasted quote, “Better a spectacular failure, than a benign success.” I had seen Nick’s father too. He’s not all that far from the entrance. You can almost see his face if you stick your own through the bars of the fence.

We’ve moved to the black leather sofa in the lounge, a room filled with more books, more sculpture, more painted canvases, the gathered clutter from a life lived among artists and musicians. There’s a book on Johnny Cash on the coffee table; glass-fronted cabinets of objects line the walls. A cast of his father’s head looks down on us—taken while he was alive, unlike the death mask that sits on top of his grave—and next to it, another life mask of fellow train robber Ronnie Biggs, who became a rebel folk icon while living for thirty-six years as a fugitive from the British police.

Biggs wears a pair of black sunglasses and a black hat, like a shop mannequin. Nick keeps copies of his more famous death masks, but all the masks in this room are of the living. Even so, there’s something unnerving about them. I feel watched. “I’ve had guests stay with me, and there’s not a single dead person in here,” he says, motioning towards them. “But just masks freak people out,” he says. “Just faces.”

All the masks in this room are of the living. Even so, there’s something unnerving about them.

He sits back, rolling a cigarette and nursing a can of San Miguel in his lap. He’s fifty-seven, wearing a pink shirt, the top few buttons undone, orange-tinted glasses. He coughs and tells me he mostly earns a living as a harmonica player (he’s in the band Alabama 3—you’ll have heard them over the opening credits for The Sopranos), and the fact that he smokes as much as he does is like killing the golden goose. “I must be stupid,” he says, licking the edge of the paper. “If I don’t have lungs I can’t play.” His voice is low and gravelly, one that could cut through the noise of a loud bar, through the cumulus nicotine fog, and still be heard. The room fills with clouds so quickly he has to open the window so I can breathe.

“In the old days, death masks were important because they thought they were somehow bottling up part of the essence of the person,” he says, blowing smoke out the window. “They believed in animism. The Greeks and the Romans believed that through concentration, prayer and incantations, whatever, you could summon up the spirit of the person. They believed that statues would come to life. In their mind they would be a house, a repository for whoever the god was, or the person, and they could summon their spirit into it. And I think the Victorians really believed in that too, somehow: that it was a receptacle because it looked like the person. Benkard, in that book you have, said eloquently that it seems that somehow, during the process, part of the mystery of death seems to slip into the casting, and that’s what gives them that otherworldly feel.”

Looking at the faces in the book, and the death masks in real life, I do feel that they do hold a kind of magic. They give you proximity to the dead, without being near them—the dead feel closer than those in the photographs on the touchscreen autopsy table in Manchester. They’re a form of immortality; a kind of physical limbo between life and death. A person might be dead for 400 years, and you can still see the wrinkles fan out from their eyes without the intermediary of a painter’s brush. Nick says a death mask can create a focal point to talk to somebody, whether you believe in an afterlife or not. He talks to his dad’s mask. He says that some clients stick them in a drawer and never open it. Others place them on the pillow beside them while they sleep.

He pulls some of his work down from the shelves. Here’s Peter O’Toole’s enormous hand cast in black, previously seen holding cigarettes in film stills, or in paparazzi shots slung around the shoulders of friends leaving Soho bars. I place my own hand over it and I’m dwarfed. He died in 2013, and through a trick of time and circumstance just happened to be in the funeral home at the same moment as Biggs. Nick phoned up O’Toole’s daughter Kate, whom he knew anyway from his work in the band, and asked her, while standing there between the two dead men, if she would like a death mask of her father. (In a BBC interview years later, Kate O’Toole laughed that it was “classic O’Toolery” that he would end up in the mortuary drawer beside Biggs.)

In past years, Nick thought that the popularity of death masks was on the rise. Any time he cast the face of somebody famous, there would be a newspaper article and some new flurry of interest. Malcolm McLaren. Soho dandy Sebastian Horsley. O’Toole. He had visions of employing art students in different cities to take the casts for him, as an apprenticeship, and he would make the finished masks here in London. But it never really took off. He casts four or five dead people a year, himself, wheeling home the plaster casts from the mortuary in his little wheelie suitcase. They are a strange minority, these people who employ him.

There are the families of the rich and famous, who have them done as a tradition—the British Conservative politician Jacob Rees-Mogg had his father’s face cast, wanting to preserve a three-dimensional portrait of the man for future generations; he liked the permanence of it, he liked having something solid and tangible. Mostly it’s the faces of men, commissioned by their widows. But then there are the others, the people Nick won’t name, the people who aren’t famous, and may not be rich, despite the £2,500 price tag. Yesterday, he cast the cold feet of a five-week-old premature baby. Two weeks ago, the face of a fourteen-year-old cancer victim. Last year, a healthy twenty-six-year-old man who stepped backwards on a pavement and tripped.

Looking at the faces in the book, and the death masks in real life, I do feel that they do hold a kind of magic. They give you proximity to the dead, without being near them.

“There’s something about taking a mask of someone, whether you do believe the mystery of death passes off into it or not,” he says, back by the open window. “The fact that it’s still a unique face, and it’s as unique as a person’s fingerprints, and it’s the last chance you’re gonna get. I think, for a lot of people, it’s just the case of knowing that they’ve managed to save a part of them that isn’t going to become worm food or ashes. They suddenly realize that the person’s gone and they want a part of them to stay. Whether there’s any rational thinking to it at the actual time, or whether it’s a last-chance-saloon thing, I don’t know. Personally, I think they’re great things, death masks. I think it’s amazing that there’s the person, dead, and you can just click your fingers, more or less, and they turn to stone. And you can keep that. Instead of it rotting on you.”

*

Nick tells me that when you die, you look amazing. All tension is released from your face, lines disappear, years of worry and pain vanish in moments. You look serene. Your face takes on an even color. “Ideally, I would get to them while they were still warm,” he says, small clouds escaping as he speaks. “Weeks down the line, when I get the call, it’s not really the same thing. They look a bit… concertinaed.”

The Victorians believed that the sooner the death mask was taken, the more of a person you could capture; they would sometimes call for the death mask maker before the doctor came to sign the death certificate. But Nick arrives when time and biology have shrunken skin and cartilage. When lips have shriveled, the domes of the eyes have sunk, and the nose has started to twist. Perhaps there’s an autopsy incision, maybe the skin has wrinkled like a prune as if the person spent too long in the pool. Maybe a drawn-out court case has left icicles to form on a body in a freezer.

But he doesn’t think there is any merit in handing someone a sculpture of their father as he looked after five weeks in a funeral home refrigerator—it is not him as he was in life, just a consequence of the slow admin of death. So he nips, tucks, smooths. He massages the skin of the dead face back into place and then later, through sculpting and what he calls an obsessive attention to detail, he undoes the effects of gravity that cause cheeks to sink towards the ears, jowls to bunch under the jaw. “Essentially, I try to get it to look as if I did it just after they died,” he says. “I try to make it look as if I haven’t done anything.”

Some people ask for the eyes to be opened, others can’t make up their mind, but mostly they look like they’re sleeping. Old death masks, like the Duke of Wellington’s, let nature stand as it is. Lacking teeth, it looks like his lips are being pulled down his throat by an invisible hand. But he died in 1852, when real death was what was expected—not the image the modern-day embalmer, or Nick, would perfect.

“The first thing you do is get their hair right,” he says, verbally walking me through a process that is now so automatic that he keeps having to stop and fill in bits he forgot to mention. Next, he covers their face in Nivea lotion, and positions the person so that the liquid rubber alginate isn’t going to run down their neck, into their clothes. If he’s lucky, they will be on a tray in the mortuary, wearing a paper hospital gown that will be changed anyway.

But more often than not, they are already dressed in their burial clothes and lying in their coffin, so Nick spends an hour meticulously placing black bin liners to protect the fabric, tucking them like Kleenex into a newsreader’s collar. The blue alginate, the same used by dentists to take an impression of teeth, is poured over the face and takes about two and a half minutes to set to the consistency of “a sort of hard blancmange”—soft, flexible, it will collapse or tear without something to reinforce it, so Nick forms a hard casing around it with plaster bandages, as if setting a broken arm.

Through sculpting and what he calls an obsessive attention to detail, he undoes the effects of gravity that cause cheeks to sink towards the ears, jowls to bunch under the jaw.

Twenty minutes later, he pulls the whole thing off. “Nine times out of ten, you actually lift the head up with it and have to shake the head out,” he says. One time, a man’s face came off attached to the alginate: his features had been expensively reconstructed in wax for the family’s upcoming viewing, and now it was too late to get the wax artist back to fix it. The panicked funeral director asked Nick if he had any experience with reconstructive wax—he didn’t, but as a sculptor he had experience of wax in general, so he gave it a go, recreating the nose, lips and eyes right there in the mortuary. “I was shaking,” he says. “I got away with it, but it was nowhere near as good.”

With the cast in his wheelie bag, he cleans up the work area, washes his bowls and picks any remaining bits of alginate from the deceased’s hair. Some funeral homes have told him it’s not necessary, that the viewings had already happened so nobody would ever know if he didn’t stay and comb the hair until the dead looked like they did before he arrived. But like Terry switching back the faces in the Mayo, Nick would know. So he stays, he fixes it, and then he rushes home to fill the mould before the rubber starts to shrink.

If there is minimal reconstruction work, he will fill it with plaster and chisel any changes after it hardens. If the face needs more attention, he will fill the mould with wax, which is malleable—if all he needs to do is straighten a dehydrated, twisted nose, he can gently push it straight before the wax has cooled. The plaster or wax face is then moulded again in painted layers of silicon rubber before that mould is, finally, filled with polyurethane resin mixed with a metal powder. The heavy metal sinks through the resin to the surface of the cast, creating an outer layer the thickness of three cigarette papers. Transfer after transfer, several prints away from the original flesh face: a permanent, incorruptible one in bronze.

You can see Nick’s process for making a death mask in a grainy three-minute video on YouTube. It’s not as neat as the situation laid out above, but the circumstances weren’t as neat either. In 2007, he travelled to Texas for the execution, by lethal injection, of thirty-two-year-old John Joe Amador, convicted thirteen years previously for the murder of a taxi driver. “I was convinced that the guy was innocent,” said Nick, who had been introduced to Amador’s story by a mutual friend. “I was outraged that he had been on death row for twelve years and had lost every appeal, even though the evidence was laughable.” He suggested to the friend that he go with her to the execution, and make a death mask as a way of raising public awareness about the horror and injustice of the death penalty. He wanted to cast Amador’s arm too, and later add three hypodermic needles jutting from the vein.

After the execution, Nick, along with Amador’s family, took his body from the prison morgue (who would not allow a cast to be taken on the premises—”They said, ‘Nope, you can’t do that, are you crazy?!'”), put him in the flattened back seat of a rental car and drove him to a cabin in the woods—a pit stop on the way to another funeral home they claimed they had waiting in order to gain release of the body, but at that point didn’t. “Basically, we’d kidnapped this body to take it to a little hut like in Friday the 13th, and we were all shitting ourselves, paranoid, thinking we’re gonna get nicked by the FBI,” he says. “It took us about ten hours to drive there, in a two-car convoy. One of the cars got picked up by the Old Bill at one point. Luckily, it was the one without the body in it. That would’ve been quite tricky to explain.”

It was the first time he had been touched by friends or family in twelve years of incarceration. He was still warm.

On the drive, they unzipped the body bag so his wife could hold his hand. It was the first time he had been touched by friends or family in twelve years of incarceration. He was still warm.

It was hot in Texas, and hotter still in the cabin. Nick worried that his limited amount of alginate would set too quickly—lukewarm water can make it set in the bowl while you’re mixing it—so he used ice-cold water and worked fast, casting his face and arm at the same time, trying to outrun the effects of the ambient temperature. When he pulled the mould off half an hour later, the chill of the alginate had given the dead man goosebumps.

Nick walks out of the sitting room and comes back with John Joe Amador’s terracotta-colored face on the back of a sculpture of an armadillo, the emblem of the state that killed him. “The fact he was warm made me feel he was more real, I think,” he says, handing me the face before sinking into the sofa. “When they’ve been dead for two weeks I don’t feel that the person is there anymore. When they’re warm it’s almost as if—if there is such a thing—their spirit is lingering.” I run my fingers over Amador’s chin and they are unmistakable: goosebumps on a dead man, like an amputated lizard’s tail still writhing in the grass. Like a beheaded turtle, snapping.

“I spoke to him just before they killed him,” Nick says. “He was over the moon, actually. He said, ‘Wow, you’re the guy who’s going to do my death mask. That’s an honor they usually only reserve for people like kings. I used to think I was trash. Now I know I’m someone.'”

___________________________________

Excerpted from All the Living and the Dead: From Embalmers to Executioners, an Exploration of the People Who Have Made Death Their Life’s Work by Hayley Campbell. Copyright © 2022. Available from St. Martin’s Press, a division of Macmillan, Inc.

Hayley Campbell
Hayley Campbell
Hayley Campbell is an author, broadcaster, and journalist. Her work has appeared in WIRED, The Guardian, New Statesman, Empire, GQ, and more. Her books include All the Living and the Dead and The Art of Neil Gaiman. She lives in London with her cat, Ned.





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