Blog Post #3: Death, Captivating and Frightening

Before reading Luke Fiddler’s Impressions From the Face of a Corpse, I remained ignorant to the existence of ‘death masks.’ Never had this concept of capturing the face of a deceased one last time before the final good-bye ever occurred to me. Yet immediately I understood why people continue (for centuries!) to capture these unique faces of the deceased. In the second paragraph, I believe Fiddler touches on the reason why these faces are so captivating and enthralling

“ 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?”

I understand that unexplainable, intriguing, almost-absorbing feeling one feels when looking into the face of the deceased. My entire childhood, both of my parents worked as Executive Directors for Assisted Living Homes. Though they love their occupations, both claim the one of the most unfortunate aspect remains the passing of residents, especially when they were close with them, (essentially the whole building). So naturally we attended many funerals.With many of the funerals holding open caskets, from a young age, these deceased faces enthralled me. TO this day they remain slightly frightening ,yet I can’t stop studying their final facial features.

Despite the fact an Open Casket viewing differs from a death mask, one cannot deny the comparison of the phenomena Fiddler discusses of how we cannot stop from staring at all the little imperfections. He mentions a popular notion that “in death, our bodies become honest.” I found this interesting because as I recall staring the person never looked the same as in life (I understand now a body is manipulated for an open casket). How bodies remained so perfect and still, makes me associate death with a feeling of ease, peace and comfort. Yet as a child interacting with residents, the imperfections on the elderly are clearly noticed, which made me nervous and slighly frightened when around them; worn, leathery hands, blue veins clearly visible, faces covered in wrinkles and scars from life.

I believe this manipulation of death in our society and how others capture death through ‘death masks represent how different cultures and societies deal with the unknown of death. Though the stillness of the bodies and the awareness the deceased is no longer living, I could never stop from staring at that serene person laying in that casket. As we grow and become more open-minded throughout history, people realize death may not turn out to what its described as in their religion or personal ideology. Though all cultures and societies possess different practices for their dead, their process reflect their attitudes and beliefs about the afterlife. This fear and acknowledgement of the unknown forces us to do the only thing possible to ease that feelings of fear, anxiety from uncertainty; comfort each other. As Aristotle teaches us through his artistic proof of ethos one must build credibility with their audience. I believe that is the purpose of these death masks or even open caskets. Viewing the face of the deceased with their face remaining the same integrity, or even being moulded and casted different to particular taste, or having an open casket displaying the deceased almost happy, builds the best credibility through personal first-hand accounts of the people one admired, respected and loved.

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One thought on “Blog Post #3: Death, Captivating and Frightening”

  1. I found your post to be quite intriguing. I, too, was not aware of the concept of the death mask before reading the Fidler article. Our cultural relationship is indeed complicated and mysterious.

    As this relates back to our study of material culture, it is interesting to consider that dichotomy between our fascination with death and death rituals and that similar revulsion we have with negative contamination. I’ve always thought open-casket funerals were bizarre and not too unlike the weirdness one experiences through taxidermy.

    Your personal experience with funerals provides an interesting account of how we experience curiosity and fear concerning dead things, driving home what Fidley says about the death mask-making process: they show evidence of human hands doing post-mortem manipulation: an open casket service has some very specific aesthetic operations at play. The room is filled with flowers, very symbolic. The corpse is dressed in their finest clothes, in a very shiny, luxurious coffin. The facial posture is set to that of serene sleep, and most often, the corpse has been made up with cosmetics to appear more preserved, not a body set on the course of decay. I think we want to avoid decay as “negative contamination,” therefore it makes sense to include all of those funeral rituals and practices.

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