From the moment I was able to understand the term ‘death’ up to now, I was always appalled and frightened every time I just heard the word. The cause of me to react like that is probably the death of my grandmother when I was six years old. My grandmother and I always had a special relationship. Maybe it was because I was the oldest son of her youngest son, or maybe it was because she knew how long she would be with us in this world. Who knows? All I know is that although I was only six years old, I knew what was going on when I was at her funeral with my parents and other family members. My beloved grandmother was no longer with us. Of course there were many more funerals I had to attend in the past several years, but I’m sure the death of my grandmother left me the trauma I still have today, or I should say the trauma I used to have.
After reading Fidler’s Impressions From the Face of a Corpse, I learned a few positive things about death to help overcome my fear. In his essay, Fidler asserts that “the death mask is something between a creepy portrait and a contact relic,” that “it’s an uncanny object, one that spurs us to reconsider the matter of portraiture and commemoration. To ask why or how a death mask works is to probe a maelstrom that makes mock of sure footing. But what if the thing that makes a death mask tick is not the resemblance to someone long-dead, but rather the visual noise, static, and imperfections that halt that resemblance in its tracks?”
Even to this point, I didn’t have a complete understanding of what the quote meant. However, after reading that “phrenologists sought them out as teaching tools, and taught students to read worlds into the bumps and grooves of cheekbones and foreheads,” and “artists incorporated death masks into commemorative busts, such as that made of Napoleon I by Francois Carlo Antommarchi,” along with what was revealed within Napoleon’s and Beethoven’s masks in the following paragraphs, I had a better understanding. Not only was I fascinated at the fact that we humans have advanced so much in coming up with these theories and ideas, and even went beyond science in order to learn more about the kind of people who are long-dead are, but also had a better understanding of the different perspectives from different societies, and the different purposes of the masks. I learned that death masks aren’t just commemorative items, nor are they unwanted reminders of grotesque things that we don’t want to remember, but they are some kind of portal that leads us to a better understanding, a clearer knowledge of the person, who the mask belongs to.
One thought on “Blog Post 3: Death Then and Death Now”
Your personal experience of your grandmother’s passing reminds me of a personal experience of my own. Being raised by my own grandparents rather than my birth parents, it’s no surprise that one of them died when I was pretty young. My grandfather played a paternal role in my life and he died when I was 13. The idea of “negative contamination” is really interesting to me also. He died in a hospital of something like an aneurism. Hospitals, I believe, have at once a reputation for helping people but they also have an eerie reek of death– a lot of people die in them. Any way, your experience reminded me of my own, in that, I encountered a trauma as you put it.
You refer to the death masks as a “portal.” That is a very interesting choice of words, considering that the whole concept of dying can be likened to entry into a portal. People who’ve been revived, experiencing a near death event, often describe strange recollections not too unlike what we might consider a portal or vortex.
I’m really interested in learning more about the cultural study of death and ritual, and I get the sense from your work here, that our study of material culture can be enhanced by looking at death masks in similar way as Deetz looks at archaeological sites: these objects are worth far more than their face value: they are microcosms that have the potential to tell us much about the person who died, the person(s) who’ve owned/possessed the death mask, how and when it was made and in what manner, and also, something about the culture and time period in which it was made.