A death mask is a wax or plaster cast of a person's face taken while he or she is alive or after their death. Usually the mask is created after the death of the person because of the danger imposed by its materials. The making of a reproduction of the face of a dead person is an ancient practice whose origins date from the periods of the Romans and Egyptians. The process served as a reminder of the deceased for the family, as well as a protector from evil spirits, and is associated with a belief in the return of the spirit.
In some cultures, mostly in African, Native American, and Oceanic tribes, death masks are considered an important part of social and religious life. Death masks facilitate communication between the living and the dead in funerary rites and they create a new, superhuman identity for the bearer. Death masks can take the form of animals or spirits, thereby allowing the bearer to assume the role of the invoked spirit or to fend off evil forces.
In some tribes death masks are used in initiatory or homage ceremonies, which recount the creation of the world and the appearance of death among human beings. For others, where the link to ancestors is sacred, they are used to make the transition from the deceased to his or her heir of the family. Death masks are also used as a tool to help the deceased's soul pass easily to the other life. The respect of the funeral rites of mask dancing can also protect from reprisals from the dead, preventing the risk of a wandering soul.
Bonnefoy, Yves, and Wendy Doniger. Mythologies. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991.
Guiley, Rosemary E. Harper's Encyclopedia of Mystical and Paranormal Experience. San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 1991.
D EATH P ENALTY
See C APITAL P UNISHMENT .